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.

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

Design and Living: Architect Ernst Plischke’s Manifesto for Housing in New Zealand

Unnoticed by most New Zealanders in May 1939 was the arrival in Wellington of an architect of international stature. Racism, xenophobia and war were driving some of the best minds of Europe to (very) distant shores, and one can only imagine the reaction Ernst Anton Plischke had when he arrived in Wellington with his wife and children. A highly sophisticated and well-educated Austrian, Plischke grew up in Vienna and moved in prominent circles with names across the arts. After graduating from his studies he was immediately recruited by Peter Behrens (who had earlier recruited others central to the Modernist movement like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier); Plischke later joined Josef Frank’s studio, then moved to New York to work for Ely Jacques Kahn (architect of many of the city’s skyscrapers). While in New York he met Frank Lloyd Wright. This is the man—urbane, sophisticated, with a prominent career looking increasingly assured—who, as a Jew aligned to the socialists, fled to Wellington, New Zealand, following the reunification of Austria and Germany.

We do know that life in New Zealand wasn’t the easiest for Plischke. For instance, while working for the Department for Housing Construction—a quickly conceived government plan to cope with looming housing shortages following the anticipated end of the war—Plischke designed the Dixon Street Flats in Wellington. A few years later, his boss Gordon Wilson won the New Zealand Institute of Architects Gold Award for precisely those buildings. It seems that many who he worked with were envious of his talent and whenever possible appropriated aspects of his designs; and as a final insult, his Austrian qualifications were deemed insufficient for him to join the New Zealand Institute of Architects. So, when Plischke finally left his government job, he went into private partnership with a fully qualified New Zealander, Cedric Firth.

Ernst Plischke architect New Zealand Design and Living book During his time in New Zealand (he left twenty four years after arriving to return to Vienna) Plischke designed numerous public buildings, social houses and private dwellings. These certainly set an example. But Plischke also wanted other architects and the public to understand the philosophy behind his buildings—to see Modernism as not just sleek lines and lots of glass, but as a philosophy of living. To this end, in 1947 he published a pamphlet book called Design and Living. It is a remarkable publication, filled with drawings, acting as an architectural primer, a philosophy of modern design, and a portfolio of key Plischke works. For a country facing once again a housing crisis—just as we were when Plischke wrote the book—it presents lessons we appear still to need to digest.

A house is a framework for living

Plischke's Corner Flat in Wellington, completed 1959/60
Plischke’s Corner Flat in Wellington, completed 1959/60

In New Zealand architectural history Plischke is usually presented as one of a band of International Style-ists opposed to any attempt to find a ‘vernacular’—i.e., a ’New Zealand style’—of architecture. Plischke’s kind of modernism has been criticised for being wilfully ignorant of local conditions or culture, for enforcing a supposed rational uniformity on all inhabitants of a building no matter where in a country or even where in the world they reside. This is the same criticism of Le Corbusier’s dictum that “a building is a machine for living in”. People are organic beings, not machines, is the protest.

But in reading Plischke’s own Design and Living one is struck by how far he himself seemed to have moved beyond this kind of international-vernacular debate entirely. In one important section he nods to all the different philosophies of housing, from an ascetic/simple living view, to the Corbusian ‘machine’ philosophy, and even a kind of post-modern ‘home as self-expression’ view. And he then moves beyond them:

“There is the person who says that a house should be essentially a shelter against wind and rain and cold; that any structure which effectively keeps out those elements is a good house. There is the person who wants, besides shelter, something he describes as a snug, cosy home. The man who imagines himself up to the moment will probably oppose that idea and demand that a house should function like a motor-car, or, rather, like an ocean liner: a machine that makes life as efficiently comfortable as possible. Then, we know the person who wants to impress his friends with his success and his worth as a citizen. And we know what his house usually looks like. But there are people who dislike the idea of display, who think that a house should be something more than a shelter or a snuggery or a machine. They realise that a house is a framework in which our lives are lived, and that life does not entirely consist of working, eating, and sleeping. They want a richer and fuller life, and they know that the house they live in can play an active part in attaining it.”

Plischke’s philosophy is far more complex than those other views, but also, in a way, far more simple. Here’s where I think his own origins play a role in having shaped his philosophy. Having grown up in a cultural centre, somewhere where art and culture being discussed at the coffee house was a central part of existence, Plischke sees the buildings in which we live and converse as existing to help bring out those heights of human achievement and accomplishment. Elsewhere he expands on this view:

“Earlier I said that houses make a framework for richer and fuller living: this goes far beyond the materialistic idea that a house should be merely a shelter. A rich and full life can be called a civilised life. And we who belong to a young country just beginning to build should remind ourselves that history does not judge a civilisation by its material and economic organisation alone, but rather by the thoughts and arts that it inspired.”

This is no architect concerned with building monuments to a nation or monuments to himself. It’s almost a modest view—that the best an architect can do is get out of the way and let artists, scientists and workers get on with their lives.

New Zealand housing in crisis

Plischke wrote his book as New Zealand was still in the midst, though emerging gradually, from a housing crisis. The cost of housing was rising; there weren’t enough houses to go around; and government housing programmes weren’t being built fast enough. He had for years been working on social housing developments, and was very sensitive to the charge that as a modernist architect he was elitist, and his homes unaffordable. At various points in Design and Living Plischke responds to that criticism, providing costings for his houses and showing that they fit below the government grant provided for affordable housing.

Though he didn’t put it as simply as this, Plischke seems almost to have a three-point plan for solving New Zealand’s housing woes:

  1. Adjust expectations
  2. Build smaller, but more efficiently
  3. Think at the family, town and city level, not in terms of number of houses built

Way back in 1947 Plischke seemed to take for granted that the way we were building wasn’t sustainable, and that at a certain point we would have to change our expectations about a quarter-acre patch. As he wrote simply,

“The first and most important step towards getting good design and good value would be that we ourselves should revise our taste and our ideas about what we think is good building and good furniture.”

Note that it wasn’t “change the dream of home ownership”, but just that in owning our homes we might need to change our views about the kind of homes we would be living in. This then led on to his view that multi-units were the way to go, and had been unfairly tarnished in the public eye by early failed projects:

“No doubt dissatisfaction can be and has been caused by multi-units when, because of the house shortage, families have had to put up with houses not designed for their needs; but this is rather like having to wear shoes that don’t fit you. The multi-unit proposal is one well worth discussion.”

Plischke thought we could build smaller houses, but not have the impression that we were living in smaller houses. Everywhere in Design and Living he makes suggestions for how to make a small home seem more spacious: use beds that fold-up into a cavity in the wall so that during the day the space can double as a living room; build-in all storage and furniture; put mirrors on the inside of wardrobes so that they don’t need to stand alone, for instance.

And, last, Plischke was adamant that government was using the wrong metrics to talk about housing:

“To many people a housing programme simply means a certain number of houses to be built on a certain area. But a housing programme can also mean the settlement of a certain number of families. You will notice the change of emphasis. The distinction becomes clearer if we think in terms of new suburbs or even of new townships…”

At a time when parties still propose building x or y number of houses, his change of emphasis to the family unit and to suburbs and towns is a good reminder about what is eventually at stake in the building of houses.

— — — —

It is ironic that Plischke’s legacy is still larger in Austria than in New Zealand despite the fact that he spent his most productive years here. Everywhere in Wellington you can see his buildings, from sleek residential buildings popping up over hillsides in suburbs, to his large tower on Lambton Quay. Plischke’s status in the public mind was solidified with a 2004 exhibition at the City Gallery in Wellington put on by the NZ Institute of Architects (the brochure of which I’ve included below).

Plischke’s book Design and Living still seems fresh with ideas, and it’s also fascinating to see how so many aspects of house design that we now take for granted were at one point controversial and revolutionary. It is disappointing that the book is so hard to find—the copy I read was practically falling apart in my hands. Now seems a good time for a re-print, if a local publisher could manage it.

Plischke Architect Wellington City Gallery Brochure 2004Plischke Architect Wellington City Gallery Brochure 2004