John Walsh: Villa-fied for trying to live in 2012

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Removal of the house at 58 Hakanoa St was approved by the council consent in January.  Photo / Dean Purcell
Removal of the house at 58 Hakanoa St was approved by the council consent in January. Photo / Dean Purcell

Architects, their clients and council planners have received quite a going over in the New Zealand Herald lately. You could say they've been villa-fied. What have they done to prompt such censure?

In parts of inner Auckland they have designed, commissioned and permitted new houses that don't pretend to be old houses.

In doing so, architects and property owners have not flouted the law or rorted the system.

And neither have council planners, despite insinuations from some residents and local board members.

Quite the opposite: anyone who has undertaken a residential building project in Auckland's old central suburbs knows only too well that the planning consent process is rigorous and often onerous.

Council planners know criticism is an occupational hazard, although it must be galling to have your integrity impugned by local politicians who know you can't answer back.

Architects, too, are used to excitable reactions from those with different aesthetic tastes.

But property owners must be surprised to find themselves named and shamed for pursuing their legitimate building ambitions.

Why should they receive this treatment? The owners of properties singled out in the Herald's recent coverage of the "heritage row" have not knocked down significant heritage houses or introduced other building types into gentrified residential neighbourhoods.

They have not inserted high-rise towers or office blocks or liquor stores or fast-food outlets, let alone anything as exotic as a brothel or a multi-unit development.

No, their aspirations are unexceptional. More than that, in our culture, they're held to be laudable: in an Auckland suburb, each of these property owners wanted to build a family home. They haven't done anything wrong; in fact, they've gone out of their way to do things right, commissioning architects with strong track records to design houses that meet both the clients' needs and the city's planning regulations.

That's not good enough for some neighbours - although others, as the Herald's reporting reveals, are more tolerant - and some local politicians.

Neighbours, in any suburb in any city, are notoriously suspicious of change.

A few decades ago, the inhabitants of traditionally working class and often Polynesian parts of inner Auckland must have experienced a culture shock when urban professionals discovered Ponsonby and Grey Lynn.

However, the newcomers don't seem to have been confronted with demands that they commit themselves to rugby league and a taro-rich diet.

Some of the current residents of the old inner suburbs, and some local politicians, are less forgiving.

Judging from their reported remarks, some councillors and local board members are not satisfied with ensuring compliance with the city's plans and building regulations. They want to impose stylistic conformity.

There's a strong echo here of small-minded, nanny state tut-tuttery: people are getting away with something, and it must be stopped.

But getting away with what? Well, let's look at one of the projects highlighted by the Herald, a house under construction in Grey Lynn's Hakanoa St. The design has been described as a "modern box" that doesn't suit the street. Leaving aside the fact that Hakanoa St is lined with boxes - for that's what villas and bungalows essentially are, with protuberances and sloped roofs attached - which were themselves once modern, there's the question of the condition of the building the new house is replacing.

The predecessor of the "modern box" was a wooden bungalow which had been subjected to brick recladding. The house was decrepit.

What could the new owners do? Restore it but alter it, as most owners of bungalows and villas have done, or want to do? Or start again and build a house designed for how we live in 2012, and not how a spec builder thought we should live in 1926?

The new house has been designed, as it had to be, in sympathy with the neighbourhood scale. But, even before it has been built, it has annoyed those who prefer replication to innovation.

Anyone preferring that the new house had a "more comfortable look", as one local politician put it, might be reassured by the house's neighbour, designed by the same architect. Built a few years ago, it has settled into its site, and seems unremarkably at home at the bottom of Hakanoa St.

It's not easy deciding questions of taste and nor is it easy balancing community interests and individual rights. Heritage buildings are important, and so is personal freedom; you could say it's one of our core heritage values. People want to live in suburbs like Ponsonby and Grey Lynn because they are convivial, lively and humanly scaled. These are not the characteristics of a museum, but a museum is the residential environment some local politicians seem to favour, and they don't mind if it includes a lot of reproductions.

Pastiche reference to familiar types, it seems, is preferable to contemporary expression.

Did the owners of Victorian cottages feel the same way when the villa came along? Were villa owners in turn outraged by the advent of the bungalow? Probably not. In these matters, our forebears seem to have been more confident than we are.

History, and heritage, is a continuum. Being part of it means adding to it, as well as preserving it.

Architecturally, we would be truer to the vibrant history of our old inner-city suburbs if we engaged with them skilfully and sympathetically, rather than condemning them to a future of genteel atrophy.

- NZ Herald

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