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Building it up just to tear it down

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 we've learned from history, and that these contemporary clean-slate aspirations dont 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.

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