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.

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.