Party Wall by Patchwork Architecture

This essay was published in Here Magazine Issue 13.
Photograph by Simon Devitt.

Wellington’s Upland Road, in university-suburb Kelburn, has always had a sense of grandeur. It’s a street of many large, elegant old homes, with a few well-done modern insertions. The grandeur may also be, for me anyway, the result of that line from James K. Baxter’s poem: “Upon the upland road / Ride easy, stranger…” Yet last month Wellington-based writer Murdoch Stephens published his book Down From Upland, which has made the grandeur somewhat harder to sustain. According to its blurb, Stephens’s book “Skewers the best and worst of Wellington’s leafy middle class, featuring public servants with varying degrees of integrity, precocious Wellington High students and a foreign lover at the end of a working holiday visa.”

Change is afoot on Upland Road in another way, with a new townhouse development—often a tense subject, these days. So I watched with interest during daily walks as this new building took shape at the very end of Kelburn’s main road. A concrete core structure grew from the ground and was then left over 2020’s lockdown to look like an abstract ruin. The monumental concrete wall then grew upwards. From another angle, a single monopitch roof eventually covered the building. In the end, no tense reactions have yet been seen; just praise for the fact that two stunning townhouses have been fitted onto a previously bare piece of marginal Wellington hillside.

This feat—the houses themselves, and the praise—is the result of an inspired collaboration between patron-developer Luke Pierson, and Sally Ogle and Ben Mitchell-Anyon of Patchwork Architects. Pierson had previously worked with the Patchwork duo on his own home, dubbed the Pyramid Scheme, also in Wellington. Ogle says Pierson came to them with the idea of “showcasing what’s possible, demonstrating what dense living could be like.” The original thought was to create two detached houses, but Ogle says they wondered, “Is that necessary? Can we do more here with less?” Hence the party wall.

Each house is two storeys, with two bedrooms and one bathroom, and a large living-kitchen-dining area. They’re mirror images of each other, with bedrooms and bathrooms on the lower storeys, and living upstairs. From the street, just off Upland Road, you climb up concrete stairs. From here you continue straight up another external flight of stairs to get to the lower of the two units, or you turn left and up another two flights to the top storey of the other.

You enter the homes through a large sliding door on the top storey, and you’re in the middle of a lofty, open-plan space. I visited the upper of the two houses, where, entering, you’ve got the concrete party wall and staircase on your right, with soaring vertical cedar boards on your left that appear to continue and run sharply down the ceiling. The cedar breaks only for a sliding door out to a lovely courtyard set against the steep bank (unique to this unit of the two), while the kitchen is at the rear, with a horizontal window looking out to bush to the south. Downstairs, the bathroom is in the centre between the two bedrooms.

It’s all compact, but feels lofty and tactile instead of small, with an almost chapel-like quality to the main space. Your attention is drawn more to the materials, textures and light. Stepping from the timber flooring upstairs, for instance, to the concrete staircase, to wool carpet downstairs is just one of the tactile pleasures of these homes. And that other frequent downside to new townhouses—limited daylight—is emphatically countered with a seamless glass face, double-height on the upper storey.

Patchwork’s projects each have floor plans condensed to their essence, as well as something fun and unexpected. These homes are no exception. Here the fun is the central concrete wall, playing with the idea of living under one roof. Ogle says it was about “making one big move and letting that determine other decisions.”

From the street, the wall reads as a raised middle-finger of sorts to the idea, often not unfounded, that a party wall involves a loss of privacy. Look here, it seems to say: the neighbours can’t hear each other, promise. Yet the wall’s heft is countered by the seeming lightness of the structure around it, with internal cedar boards running the length of the ceilings and walls in both dwellings, visually connecting the two even as the wall makes it more than obvious they are separate homes.

Luke Pierson talks about wanting with these houses to test the idea of what a quality townhouse can be. He speaks of “creating only houses I would be happy to live in myself, any day,” with an emphasis on “the quality of materials and spaces.”  Where living in an inner-city suburb often requires compromise of some sort, these houses are an attempt to prove his hypothesis: that there is an audience—a paying one, no less—for small, urban-ish homes that simply don’t compromise on the quality of the architectural idea. “There’s that quote that says something about building a successful brand by making a thousand decisions rightly,” Pierson says: “That’s what we’ve tried to with these houses, making every decision well.”

These are not “Case Study” houses in the mid-century sense of affordable and replicable homes, like the kinds in Los Angeles or their New Zealand equivalents in Wellington’s Karori or Auckland’s North Shore. But they might be among the first in a new kind of case study: small-scale, multi-dwelling infill housing that shows the bigger players what could be possible as we fill our suburbs with townhouses.