Central Planning: On Two Colourful Townhouses in Christchurch [Here Magazine]

Tony de Lautour, Central Planning (2013)

This essay was originally published in the launch issue of Here Magazine New Zealand. Interior photographs by Sam Hartnett.

After the earthquakes, Christchurch-based artist Tony de Lautour’s paintings changed markedly. His colours became brighter and bolder, and he took a turn to the abstract, building up angular forms into compositions that blur boundaries—sometimes letters seem to appear, while at others his canvases look like abstracted cityscapes viewed from above. Shapes totter and teeter. Red lines seem sometimes to read as the red tape that hindered reconstruction post-earthquake. And in one significant painting, titled (ironically) “Central Planning”, forms of colour are interlocked together against a plywood ground, with a rectangular hole literally cut out of the middle of the canvas. 

The hole could represent the loss of Christchurch’s city centre, cut out of the fabric of the city. Or it could represent the seeming absence of government planning that many saw in a city that so desperately needed it. Maybe it represents both at once. But recently, when thinking about Bull O’Sullivan Architects’ Chen Anselmi Units in Christchurch’s Sydenham, the painting has seemed to represent the vibrant small-scale development that has gone on in the city centre’s surrounding suburbs. It seems to say that the most successful development happens around and in spite of central planning, not because of it.

Chen Anselmi Units Architecture Christchurch New Zealand
Photograph by Sam Hartnett.

Case in point are these two 100 square metre townhouses built at the back of a section containing an existing bungalow. Where most might consider a lean-to extension into the back garden, or a single dwelling subdivision at most, Bull O’Sullivan’s Paul Anselmi and partner Maria Chen (an architectural designer at Athfield Architects’ Christchurch office) have fitted two 2-3 bedroom dwellings. Each has a garage, a covered outdoor area, a small garden and a third bedroom or study. What’s more remarkable is that the townhouses are positively generous, with gestures like a double-height light-filled atrium above the dining area. 

Paul and Maria were living overseas when the earthquakes struck, but moved back shortly after. “The bungalow was in a poor state when I first stumbled upon it in 2014,” says Maria. “The tenants also had lots of belongings, it was difficult to even see the floor. Most open home goers did a U-turn after they went inside; I thought the house had lots of nice opportunities. The location was perfect for me as I wanted to live close enough to bike to work in the central city.” At the time, zoning regulations allowed one unit to be built on the rear of the section, but regulations later changed and permission was granted to build two townhouses. “As the units were also intended to be rented, we needed them to be practical and flexible for tenants,” says Paul: “But at the same time wanted them to feel individual and domestic so they would enjoy the spaces and never want to leave”.

The driveway to the units is to the right of the bungalow. Straight ahead is the garage of the rear unit, which Paul and Maria occupy, while a left-hand turn half way down the drive leads to the garage of the second unit, which is rented. Each unit is entered via a private covered outdoor area (a sunny spot during the day), and into a corridor. Turn right after entering the front door and you come into the lofty double-height dining area, with kitchen on the right and a living area on the left. A staircase leads up to two bedrooms and a decently-sized bathroom, while the third bedroom/study is downstairs off the entry corridor. Spaces are tight, but never poky; and in these townhouses it’s colour and light that transform them into spaces far more than their back-section infill status might suggest.

Light, first of all: lots of it, thanks to use of a multi-layer polycarbonate in the double-height atrium and as the garage door. Irregular, tetris-shaped timber supports the opaque polycarbonate, which floods the space with an even light and ensures privacy from neighbours (plus insulation better than glass). “While budget dictated simple spaces and materials, we made a conscious effort to push a few key materials that would make the project special,” says Paul, and the polycarbonate delivers, lighting up the units like lanterns at night. Meanwhile a skylight above the stairs brings light into what otherwise would be the darkest part of the townhouse, and allows glimpses of both trees and the Port Hills.

Then colour: also lots of it, but more importantly, a too-rarely-seen confident use of it. Paul says, “We knew that we didn’t want white walls as it would have been oppressive in the small spaces. Choosing colours is all about experimenting. We went through many testpots and putting samples on the walls to the annoyance of the plasterer, and ended up with 18 colours in each unit.” This isn’t just a feature wall in the living room, but a layering of colour and texture to produce an effect not too dissimilar to a de Lautour painting like “Central Planning.” 

The front door is a most cheerful yellow. The double-height wall is a mediterranean-esque blue. The yellow carries through to the kitchen island, while the garage interior is painted in “Clockwork Orange”. A cabbage-tree green follows the staircase and landing. And then the bedrooms: that sea blue again, on one wall, with a light modernist pastel blue on the other. Meanwhile, the whole dwelling is given texture through use of Portuguese cork for the common floors and staircase, while the ply lining the staircase walls is “simple cheap pine” (Paul’s words). The effect is anything but simple or cheap—it’s vibrant and confident, turning the units into a microcosm of the bold experimentation going on across post-quake Christchurch.

This is one architect-couple’s contribution to New Zealand’s housing stock, done in a mindful and generous way. “It was important that the design didn’t just serve me and Paul, but a wider demographic of people who live in Christchurch,” says Maria. And Paul echoes this generous spirit, pointing to one of the project’s objectives as being to “Provide high quality of space that supports well-being and positive social relationships.” 

These units show that what’s good for one’s own housing prospects (in this case, having one beautiful home to live in and two to rent) can also be generous to tenants, neighbours and to the city. Which leads us back to central planning and government-sponsored house building… Who needs it, one half wonders, when it’s the spaces and shapes that spring up around the centre that give a painting or a city all its life?

New Zealand Architecture review
Photograph by Sam Hartnett.