Simon Wilson has been judging architecture awards and he was not always impressed by what he found.
When it comes to housing, is quality a function of cost? Turns out that's not nearly as true as you might think.
I know this because not long ago I spent more days than many would consider sane walking round the "best" new buildings in Auckland and Northland. I was the "lay judge" on the judging panel for the New Zealand Institute of Architects' 2019 awards, northern region.
The other judges were real architects, judging their peers. I was the one who didn't talk about "materiality" and "typology" and didn't always know what kind of flashing had been used to keep the rain out above the windows. My job, I guess, was to be impressed.
Which I often was. But not always. Oh no, not always at all.
Possibly the most expensive house we saw was also the worst. A bleak and empty monstrosity, designed by a major firm, there was almost nothing about it that spoke in any way of human warmth. "Which is your favourite room?" we asked the owner. He nominated the smallest living area – a room still bigger than most people's entire living/kitchen/dining areas.
He'd insisted on having an enormous house and he liked the smallest room best.
The worst room was the master bedroom, a blank space larger than many houses, with a bed crouched against one wall and a couple of sticks of furniture stranded on the far side of the room. No other adornments or comforts or signs of life.
People sleep in there? What's it like to go to bed at night and, instead of being enveloped in warmth and security, to stare across the room at a vast emptiness? Wondering if anyone would hear you if you screamed.
I found myself hoping these people didn't have any influence over the well-being of others and realising they almost certainly did.
The funniest thing about that house was that we got a lecture from the architects about how a monumental external feature with no apparent purpose was actually a screen to stop the neighbours looking in. Near the end of our visit I discovered that if you were sitting on the downstairs guest toilet, anyone on the living-room balcony of the nearest neighbour could be looking right at you.
Money sure is wasted on some people.
In defence of architects and their wealthiest clients, I should say that wasn't always the case. We saw a house by Cheshire Architects in the Bay of Islands that was so beautiful and so serene, perched on a hillside with a gloriously high and wide view, that if you lived there it would be like you were among the gods in heaven.
We saw several other beautiful expensive homes, too. A spacious timber-clad house on Great Barrier by architecture+ infused with a Zen-like sense of harmony; some converted villas where you stepped from the old into the new and it was like entering a modernist wonderland; a Remuera arts and crafts mansion with a magnificent new wing, by Crosson Architects, where wealth and taste breathed from every pore.
On the whole, the expensive homes were not ostentatious. That partly reflected our preferences when we looked at all the photos and drew up our long list of the places we would visit. We all liked the look of houses that did not shout their importance at you.
A Waiheke holiday home by the firm Bureau achieved that, although it was twice the size of its neighbours, by being divided into two single-storeyed wings with a low central pavilion. From the road above you looked down on the little settlement in a near-private bay, the new house perfectly in scale with the others.
Others did it with adherence to the "New Zealand vernacular" - timber cladding, simple pitched roofs, some local stonework. Houses whose heritage is the woolshed but with cedar weatherboards instead of pine and with very expensive kitchens inside.
The truth about money, that it doesn't correlate to quality, also held true at other points on the scale. We saw budget-priced houses of great charm, where good design had triumphed over the lack of expensive materials or space to build bigger.
We saw budget-driven multi-unit apartment blocks and terrace housing very cleverly designed to offer the homeowners dignity and pleasure. We saw social housing doing the same.
It wasn't always the case. At one social housing project we were taken through, we heard a litany of excuses. "The rules wouldn't let us do this." "The developer cut the cost on that." But it wasn't hard to see that an architect more in tune with the requirements would have done better.
If the worst sin in housing is shoddy construction, the next worst is to create a streetscape of boring homes and condemn people on low incomes to live in them because "nothing better" can be done. It's just not true and, when it does happen, developers, architects and other designers; officials and politicians are all to blame.
Flow from inside to out, the balance of privacy and living in a community, the use of colour and textural highlights, thought given to planting, orientation to the sun, consideration of where in the house you create the sense of space, clever juxtaposition of the units: none of these things has to cost more and good architects are using them to lift budget homes from ordinary to admirable.
One tip: balconies make the apartment. Balconies do cost more, but they're not nice-to-have, they're essential. They enlarge small homes, they allow you to connect to the weather and the world, they give you another place to go.
Balconies, more than any other single element, transform apartments into decent homes.
Hobsonville Point was remarkably interesting, for good and bad reasons. We gave an award to the masterplan, for its housing and communal facilities and to some of the multi-unit apartments we saw. But we also turned some down.
Drive around this fast-growing suburb and you can compare myriad two- and three-storey terraced homes - and many higher blocks, too. The best are quite lovely – brick helps massively with that – and offer flexible living spaces inside.
If money doesn't guarantee quality, in the hands of good architects it certainly helps, and you see that in this suburb.
But despite all the good things being done for community building, environmental management and the aesthetics of the place, Hobsonville Point is not a model suburb.
It's a travesty, for two reasons. One is none of the projects are for social housing or other genuinely low-cost housing, although most developers have worked hard to keep costs down within the brackets they're working in.
The second reason is the transport.
Many of the streets have cul-de-sacs at the rear that were shilled to us as communal areas for kids to play safely in. But those cul-de-sacs are full of carparks. Not only do they fill up with cars but the garages commonly block the view from the apartment of anyone wanting to keep an eye on the kids playing out there.
There's a very limited ferry service, which has been increased recently only because the locals got together to pay for it themselves. Bus services are limited too. Basically, there is no disincentive at all for every working person to own a car, so they all do.
Hobsonville Point is chock-full of traffic. Astonishingly, it has the 21st century character of modern terraced and apartment block homes and terrific communal facilities, with a 1960s' attitude to transport.
How did that happen? How is it being allowed to happen still?
If you work in a relatively new office fitout you'll know the fashion is for pods or rows of work stations, perhaps with hot-desking and lockers, flexible communal areas and meeting spaces. Even bosses tend not to get their own office these days.
If your office is about to convert to that style, don't worry about it, because it works. But note that the best of them have a choice of formal and informal places where one, two or 10 people can work away from their desks; a good cafe with lots of places to plug in a laptop; a great colourscheme and cool furniture; effective aircon and noise control.
In one building we saw, with an enormous central atrium right through its core, they used white noise, barely audible music and sound-muffling surfaces to keep the the noise level at just the right low hum. It was a hive of activity, with 800 people working for 100 different companies and the flexible working spaces and courageous use of shapes and colour in the design made it wildly successful.
Internally. Sadly, it was bleakly uninteresting from the outside. And confusing: we watched one poor man walk all round it before he found the very-well-disguised entrance. Some architects get only some things right.
Best version of a good workspace? My favourite was the renovation of two old DSIR buildings, now Plant and Food, in Mount Albert, by Bossley Architects. They'd taken the scientists who worked there through a difficult exercise in converting from a rabbit warren of offices to open-plan flexibility and the result was the best staff cafe we saw and the best communal spaces, in buildings that used to be ugly, dangerous and leaking but are now lovely both to look at and be in.
The worst thing we saw? That would be the offices of a legal firm, where you arrive in a lobby with an open iPad on a small desk and no receptionist. You look around at the surfaces, all darkly coloured jagged steel mesh and hard stone and you clock the Michael Parekowhai life-sized sculpture of a security guard standing at the far end. You understand that a truckload of money has been spent to create this brutal room. The Lannisters in Game of Thrones couldn't have done it better.
And you get it. If any of this makes you uncomfortable, you should leave now because this firm does not want to do business with you. Only brutes need apply.
Yes, I know, that's the point. They want to frighten people. But really? Do wealth and power need to make you disgusting?
The best thing? An inspired library manager at Auckland Central Library discovered they were going to replace the carpets, so she called in Athfield Architects to see what they could do with the money. The result is a revelation: light and bright has replaced the dimness, there's much better arrangement of work stations and benches, much better signage, some fabulous stick-on graphic design and, on one wall, a beautiful, engrossing, educational and utterly charming mural. (The mural and other graphics are by recent graduate Frances Cooper.)
And they never even got rid of the carpet.
WHAT'S HOT IF YOU'VE GOT CASH TO SPLASH?
Got a bit of fomo about what you're doing with your own home? Judging by the awards entries, here's what's fashionable in the new homes and renovations of certain parts of Auckland right now.
•Cedar weatherboards and sometimes cedar sarking inside too. Sometimes left natural, or neutrally stained; sometimes black.
•Floor-to-ceiling glass walls, steel-framed, that open completely to the garden.
•Terrazzo floors, also thinly whitewashed wooden floors.
•A big outside deck with dining table and chairs, fire and/or barbecue, set halfway back. As if a big square bite has been taken out of the middle of the house.
•Black kitchens. Big, black floor-to-ceiling kitchen cupboards and big, black islands of granite.
•A scullery. Because who doesn't want to hide in a small room off the actual kitchen to make their morning toast?
•All the whiteware bigger than it used to be and none of it white. But not bigger pantries: sometimes, they seemed almost like an afterthought.
•Two washing machines. Because apparently kids get dirty playing sport, or something.
•A light hanging over the dining table that declares it is definitely not half a globe. Sticks, tubes and waving shapes are popular.
•En suites that are smaller and less pleasant than the main bathroom. This is puzzling, especially if the homeowners are the only people living permanently in the house. Why don't they have the best bathroom?
•Walk-in wardrobes en route to the en suite.