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Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman: Why are villas so popular?

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Grey Lynn is full of pretty and popular villas.
Photo / Michael Craig
Grey Lynn is full of pretty and popular villas. Photo / Michael Craig

The villa is just one of the types of houses on offer in New Zealand yet it seems to attract more than its fair share of fans. But the question must be asked: why is this so? Why does the villa, ubiquitous in old inner-city suburbs throughout the country, generate such approval?

Some would say this rampant admiration, this unquestioning reverence, is a little misplaced. There's no especially compelling reason for the villa to be held in far higher esteem than other Kiwi houses such as, say the bungalow, mid-century home or, indeed, contemporary dwelling.

A relic from the Victorian age, the villa - with its "front parlours", boxy rooms and chocolate-box prettiness - is highly unsuited to the demands of what the interior magazines call "our modern lifestyle". The villa is all too often cold and damp - with an original kitchen and bathroom that, as mere cramped token gestures at the structure's rear, are the antithesis of what contemporary home-owners are supposed to hanker after.

But such realities do little to dampen the unbridled enthusiasm with which some people regard the villa. As reported in Anger as old Hillary villa removed some Mt Eden locals are up in arms about the fact a "century-old villa ... will be removed ... so it can be replaced with townhouses". It's worth noting that these protesters clearly weren't prepared to put their money where their mouths are in order to save the villa in question themselves. It's only now that $2.6-million has been paid for the property concerned that these people feel inspired to attempt to thwart development plans.

Even the 2009 book Villa: From Heritage to Contemporary, which at heart was something of an extended love-letter to this style of architecture, didn't shy away from listing its shortcomings such as: "the cold, the disregard for orientation, the clumsy generality of their planning, and the gauche frippery of their decoration." Of course, this ornamentation - along with the much-admired gables, bay windows and wrap-around verandas - is what draws many people to this particular style of home.

One of the Villa contributors noted it "seemed perverse ... that villa owners could be so insanely fond of their frequently draughty, damp and dark residences". But it would be churlish to fail to acknowledge two particular strengths of the villa; its high studs find favour today - as does the fact that the villa is comparatively easy to modernise.

Open up the back, knock out a few walls and Bob's your uncle. Yet, on closer examination, that second so-called advantage of this local form of architecture could be perceived as a kind of backhanded compliment. Only because it's so unsuitable in its raw state does the villa's malleability come to be seen as an asset.

Logic would suggest that it's only a matter of time before popular opinion about the villa shifts to reflect stark truths rather than glorified mythology. And, indeed, it seems that the villa's long-held mystique may be diminishing. Villas have declined in popularity, according to Modern houses take villa spotlight which reported that: "New Zealanders are increasingly in favour of modern houses, putting energy efficiency and sunny rooms before the character of old villas." A survey found that 8.4 per cent of respondents favoured a villa (down from 10 per cent in 2012).
But one aficionado showed no signs of dwindling appreciation: "We just love the old style and living in Grey Lynn, where there are mainly villas". This persistent affection is all the more perplexing (or, depending on your perspective, admirable) when the genesis of the villa is taken into account. Far from being an esteemed architectural form that many people mistake it for, the villa was, in fact, the kitset home of the day, having been unimaginatively assembled from mass-produced components.

This three-bedroom Grey Lynn villa fetched $1.215 million, well above its CV of $750,000. Photo / Richard Robinson
This three-bedroom Grey Lynn villa fetched $1.215 million, well above its CV of $750,000. Photo / Richard Robinson

In recognising this, then, a street lined with cookie-cutter old villas is surely every bit as aesthetically dull as those rows of modern look-alike houses that are often criticised for their visual homogeny. But, hey, what do I know? Someone recently demonstrated the depth of feeling for such dwellings by paying over $1.2-million for a "run-down three-bedroom Grey Lynn villa". That must surely be a sign of unadulterated, inexplicable, incurable villa love.

What's your verdict on the villa? Are you a fan of this architectural style? What is the villa's greatest strength? What are its weaknesses?

Shelley Bridgeman

Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman is a truck-driving, supermarket-going, horse-riding mother-of-one who is still married to her first husband. As a Herald online blogger, she specialises in First World Problems and delves fearlessly into the minutiae of daily life. Twice a week, she shares her perspective on a pressing current issue and invites readers to add their ten cents’ worth to the debate.

Read more by Shelley Bridgeman

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