Archive for the 'Ben Schrader' Category

Reflections on Ath

Taking over Khandallah – Ian Athfield's sprawling Wellington house (click for image credit)

Taking over Khandallah – Ian Athfield's sprawling Wellington house (click for image credit)

Wellington’s most creative architect ever, Ian Athfield (or ‘Ath’, as he was widely known), died on Friday 16 January during a procedure to treat his cancer. His death will be greatly mourned among the city’s architectural community, many of who have spent time working in his hillside office and home in Khandallah. But he will also be missed by those Wellingtonians who for over 50 years have watched Ath’s buildings rise in the cityscape and smiled at their whimsicality or felt a sense of wonder at the juxtaposition of their shapes and forms.

I first became aware of Ath in the 1970s, when I was a boy of about 10. Our neighbours had commissioned him to build them a house in Miramar and they invited us to go and have a look. In those days Ath insisted his clients help to build their own homes, so when we arrived they were busy with the concrete mixer. There was enough completed to see the emerging forms. The house was on a steep site and comprised multiple rooms on several levels and a trademark round tower – first used on his own house. Most exciting though were the children’s bedrooms, which had to be reached through a tunnel-like concrete pipe. I felt very jealous of my friend Simon.

These houses and those of fellow Wellington architect Roger Walker were lauded for their playfulness and were nicknamed ‘Noddy houses’. More formally the style was known as the Wellington School. Both architects rejected the open-floor plan of the Modernist style, instead building houses that were a succession of rooms. Each had individual architectural expression, often with steeply pitched gables or lean-to roofs that referenced New Zealand’s colonial architecture. Ath was not to be defined by one style, and from the late 1980s he charted innovative new directions in post-modern and neo-modern idioms. Yet it was his earlier houses for which he will probably be most remembered.

By this time too he was securing commercial work, such as the former Telecom Building, and was pioneering the emerging field of urban design. The best example of that was Wellington’s revamped Civic Square. This project included his stunning public library, arguably the city’s best public building. Ath recently admitted that the square had not met his expectations as a social space, something he thought more street cafés and/or a market could encourage. Among his projects that were never realised was his and Frank Gehry’s stunning design for Te Papa.

Ath was a provocateur and reformer. He rebelled against officious planning regulations. During the 1980s many of his houses featured twin chimneys, sometimes interpreted as a two-finger salute to planners. He defied rules that prevented people working from home by locating his office in his house. Ath also added several apartments onto his house, for extended family or friends to live in a communal fashion. He saw this as part of a vision to make suburbia more liveable and joked that his house would one day take over Khandallah.

His strong views could be divisive. Ath’s belief that buildings should constantly change and not be frozen in time put him off side with heritage advocates, including me. His early 2000s plan to radically rebuild the neo-Gothic Canterbury Museum caused an uproar in Christchurch and was thrown out by the Environment Court, an outcome that Ath saw as a lost opportunity. Still, his appointment to the Board of the Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand) in 2010 might have led him to soften his views. In 2014 he proposed that his home be considered for heritage listing as ‘organic heritage’. This would allow it to be modified. Heritage New Zealand is still to consider the proposal.

Ath considered his home his best work. Since 1971 the house’s bulbous white tower and cascade of rooms has been a landmark presence on the cityscape. It is a fitting memorial to his work and love of Wellington.

Historian and author Ben Schrader was a Te Ara writer. He has been involved with the Heritage New Zealand assessment of Ian Athfield’s house.

The joy and frustration of number crunching

Housing tenure, 1916–2006

Housing tenure, 1916–2006

Many historians have a love-hate relationship with official statistics. The love comes from the fact that statistics can really help buttress an argument. If you’re arguing that a community has become more ethnically diverse over a finite period of time, census statistics showing that change are more convincing than an observation that there are fewer white faces on the streets than there used to be. The hate comes from the fact that the type of statistics that are collected often changes over time. Some census information that is collected in the present was not collected in the past and vice versa, making it hard to make direct comparisons over space and time.

This was brought home to me when I was compiling tenure data for the Te Ara housing entries. I wanted to know the proportion of renters and home owners over time. My starting point was the 1916 census, the first time housing tenure statistics were collected. As I trawled through the succeeding censuses it was soon apparent that it was going to be no easy task to complete. The variables kept changing: old ones like ‘buying on time payment’ (a government scheme, distinct from paying a mortgage) disappeared and new ones like ‘rent free’ were introduced. In 1956 rent free became ‘free dwelling with job’ and in 1971 this was subdivided into ‘free dwelling with job’ and ‘provided free, not with job’ before changing yet again. The 2006 introduction of the family-trust variable added further complexity to the picture. In the end I divided the data into three variables: renting, owned and other.

I thought I had done a good job. The result showed a long term trend of declining home ownership that was supported by other evidence. But in March this year I got an email from an analyst at Statistics New Zealand, Angela, asking me how I had calculated the figures because their 2006 figure for home ownership was higher than mine. After much to-ing and fro-ing we discovered that we had used different denominators and had placed some variables in different tenure categories for different reasons. Angela recalculated the historical figures according to her methodology – our respective calculations were not too dissimilar until 1996, when our home ownership rates began to diverge – and we agreed that Te Ara would adopt these so we were consistent.  The result underlined the productive relationship between Te Ara and Statistics New Zealand.  It also highlighted the flexibility of web-based production in being able to make rapid content changes.

Interestingly, in the Dominion Post on 20 May 2014, the director of Auckland University’s Retirement Policy and Research Centre, Michael Littlewood, suggested that census data showing declining rates of home ownership was questionable. He argued that if home ownership rates were really falling, we would see a strong increase in the number of renters, and this was not happening. More needs to be known about the role of family trusts in the whole equation.  Littlewood provocatively concluded: ‘We cannot draw any particular conclusion about home-ownership trends from census data.’ This is unfair, but it shows that debate over housing statistics is set to continue and the way Te Ara’s housing tenure graphs are calculated may change again in the future.

A day in the 1850s

Canterbury Provincial Buildings, begun in 1858 (click for image credit)

Canterbury Provincial Buildings, begun in 1858 (click for image credit)

Every December Victoria University of Wellington’s Centre of Building Performance Research holds a one-day symposium that examines New Zealand’s built environment during a particular decade. This year it was the 1850s.

Each year I look forward to this symposium because most historians I meet are more interested in events that take place in built environments rather than the environments themselves. The symposium is therefore a chance to discuss ‘bricks and mortar’ – sometimes literally!

As a number of the speakers pointed out, the 1850s was important for the arrival of photography. For the first time we can see what buildings and places actually looked like, free from the modifying pencil or paintbrush of the artist: the rounded hills of Wellington, painted by the likes of Charles Heaphy in the 1840s, are now revealed as mountainous and rugged. Most speakers made liberal use of photos in their presentations, although due to the basic technology of the 1850s many of these lacked clarity. I can only give a brief account of some of the talks.

Sarah Caylor talked about shit in Wellington. She noted how in 17th-century London human excrement was collected at Dung Wharf on the Thames and then used as a fertiliser for market gardens on the city’s periphery. The same happened in 1850s Wellington, before being discontinued for public health reasons. She suggested it was time we returned to the sustainable practice.

Christine McCarthy examined the ‘V-hut’ as a temporary housing type, described by early settler Charlotte Godley as ‘all roof and no walls’. The building was closely (but not exclusively) associated with the Canterbury settlement, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ currently arising in Christchurch is a V-hut writ large.

Peter Wood spoke about Tāmihana Te Rauparaha’s (long-demolished) house at Ōtaki. It was built beside its more famous neighbour, the Rangiātea Church. Like the church, it was a culturally hybrid building, containing both Pākehā and Māori elements. The verandah posts had figurative carvings and a carved beam. Wood suggested the verandah represented the threshold between a noa (profane) exterior and a tapu (sacred) interior.

In my session, I looked at the way the main towns moved past their frontier origins and became more city-like. I argued that Canterbury Provincial Buildings was the first New Zealand structure to go past the utilitarian architecture of the first settlers and introduce a style that was more intricate and sophisticated. It was our first ‘city building’. Ian Lochhead also examined the Provincial Council Buildings, or rather what remains of them following the 2011 earthquake. The magnificent council chamber collapsed in the quake, but he said there were high hopes it would be rebuilt. He showed us a poignant photograph of recovered blocks of stone laid out in numbered piles on the street. He then showed us a photograph taken 150 years before with some of the same stones sitting in the same place waiting to be shaped and put into place. We all got the Phoenix metaphor.

Other topics included: a history of Ahuriri in Napier, the historical archaeology of post-earthquake Christchurch and Wellington architects in the 1850s.

It was interesting to see how the digital age was changing research practice. The plethora of historical images online meant at least one speaker, whose whole presentation was based on an analysis of photographs, admitted he had never entered the doors of an archive. Most speakers had filled their PowerPoint presentations with jpeg images from digital archives. The online newspaper archive Papers Past was a pivotal source for many. The experience of tramping to a particular archive to work through mountains of files appears to be on the wane.

The event ended with the traditional stroll around the corner to Havana Bar, comprising two 19th-century workers’ cottages that could have been (but weren’t) erected in the 1850s. After a few ales and a lively discussion we agreed next year’s symposium will be on the 1880s.

In praise of zoomify

I’m a part-time creator of content for Te Ara, but outside this time I’m a regular consumer of it. Recently I’ve been struck how technology like the zoomify tool (which allows you to zoom into images) continues to reshape and improve Te Ara.

I’ve been researching the founding of Auckland and Wellington for another project and wanted to know the extent of Ngāti Whātua land ownership in early Auckland. So I went to their iwi entry in the Māori New Zealanders theme and came across this map showing their 1850 land holdings. But it was hard to read and lacked the detail I was after. I wanted to be able to zoom into the Auckland isthmus and get a better idea of the ownership boundaries. As it is included in one of the first themes to be completed, I concluded the map was put up on the site before Te Ara adopted the zoomify tool.

Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: MapColl 832.4799/1840/Acc.317

It was a completely different experience when I began analysing William Mein Smith’s 1840 plan for Wellington (shown above). Though I’d seen it many times before in books, the full-screen zoomify allowed me to focus in on the detail and make many new discoveries. One thing I hadn’t noticed before was the position of the public wharf – at the end of Taranaki Street. In trading towns like Wellington, wharfside land was the most prized because it rapidly increased in value. So when the time came for the first settlers and investors to choose their sections this land was picked first – if you look closely you can see the numbers 1 and 2 on the sections either side of the wharf.

Of course, Te Aro pā also occupied this land. Its inhabitants refused to budge so its new ‘owners’ could move in, leading to one of the first conflicts between settlers and Māori in Wellington. I’d sometimes wondered why the New Zealand Company had simply not accommodated Te Aro pā in their planning, as they did Kumutoto (Woodward Street) and Pipitea pā (Pipitea Street). After identifying the high value of the Te Aro pā land (through the zoomify), I’ve decided the Company probably figured it was easier to raze Te Aro pā than upset its powerful investors. It didn’t quite go to plan: the pā remained a Wellington landmark long after the New Zealand Company perished.

So, I think it’s brilliant how Te Ara’s continuing adoption of new technology is allowing people like me to discover new things that can help advance knowledge and understanding of where we live.

House calling

Aramoana station homestead, Hawke’s Bay

Aramoana station homestead, Hawke’s Bay

I’ve recently begun researching a Te Ara entry on housing, and was pondering on the different names we have for houses and how they each evoke a different sense of place. A cottage could be located in town or country; flats and apartments bring to mind the bustle of inner-city living; villas and bungalows suggest leafy suburban streets, cribs and baches smack of sun and surf, and farmhouses and homesteads conjure up images of sheep, paddocks and the smell of mud.

I’ve been fascinated how strongly these dwelling types are associated with country living and how this reinforces New Zealanders’ affinity with the land. Most of our housing types have rural origins. Aside from flats and apartments, urban housing types – lofts, terraces, tenements, townhouses and studios – have not been (until recently) part of our vocabulary. As I’ll argue in the housing entry, this is because New Zealand towns and cities were ‘born suburban’. The plentiful supply of land meant there was no need to construct medium-density housing, which was part of the attraction for people coming to live here – and still is.

Equally fascinating is how the meaning of terms for different dwelling types have changed over time. For example, I’d been struck by the word ‘homestead’ ever since I stayed at the one at Totaranui decades ago. The word interested me because, from watching multiple westerns, the word seemed more American than British. I’d never thought to investigate its meaning until starting this entry. Consulting Harry Orsman’s Dictionary of New Zealand English, I found the word was used in New Zealand from the 1840s, which was contemporaneous with United States usage. In the US it referred to a small rural land-holding and farmhouse for working people. In New Zealand, it also had that meaning, but had a further meaning as well: the house of a station owner as opposed to the men’s quarters and other buildings. Yet there was a fine distinction to this definition. A homestead had to be some distance from the men’s quarters (presumably to reinforce social distinctions) otherwise it was called the ‘Big House’. The first meaning evoked the principle of egalitarianism and common access to land; the second meaning spoke of the strictures of the English class system and privilege.

This second meaning has endured while the first has fallen away. In recent times resorts have adopted the word homestead to describe up-market accommodation. For example, the new Wanaka Homestead offers ‘informal luxury in a friendly five bedroom boutique bed and breakfast’. The resort also offered ‘charming cottages’ with ‘apartment style’ serviced facilities for families and the less well off. Is this the beginning of a new dwelling type: the ‘cottage apartment’?

Homestead is not the only housing type whose meaning has changed. In the 1920s a flat referred to a flash apartment; it now more often describes low-end multi-unit dwellings.

Are there others whose meaning has changed? How do you refer to your dwelling: a house, castle, villa, flat, pad, dive? Are particular housing types still a signal of social status, or is where you live more important?