Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Density done right: Summit on Molesworth

My previous posts on the Croxley Mills apartments and Ebor St townhouses both dealt with medium-rise (3-6 storeys) developments on top of or within heritage buildings. This time I want to look at a relatively high-rise (11 storeys) apartment block that was built from scratch. The Summit on Molesworth apartments (designed by Warren Young of Jasmax) occupy what was once a traffic island at the intersection of Molesworth and Murphy streets, in a neighbourhood that most people think of as part of Thorndon but is officially called Pipitea.

Summit apartments from the northWhenever two streets meet at an acute angle, there is an opportunity to produce a building that is much more dramatic than a right-angled grid would usually allow. The Flatiron building is the classic example, but we have a few good examples in Wellington, such as the MLC building on Lambton Quay (see image), thanks to our clash of regular grids with the old beach lines. When the site is also as prominent as this one (overlooking the motorway, and at the northernmost edge of the "high city"), even a prosaic programme such as housing demands a bold architectural treatment. Luckily, this building lives up to the challenge.

While the form is really just an extrusion of the site plan, the shape of the plan meant that it could never have been a boring box. But it's the detailing and use of colour that lifts it out of the ordinary. It may be a very strict geometric grid, but the depth of the balconies and brise soleil give a sense of complexity and a play of light and shadow that curtain walls rarely provide. The blocks of primary colour lift it out of the strict purity of po-faced white-walled modernism, with a dash of humour that I presume is a direct allusion to Mondrian. Perhaps the building could have been named "Molesworth Boogie Woogie"?

There's also a human touch at street level, with a sheltering verandah and a retail space that I assume is intended to become a café. It remains to be seen how much demand there is for a café at this end of town, but it's an important step towards enlivening the street.

Summit apartments at street level
While not everything about this building is perfect (the southern end is mostly blank, perhaps in anticipation of a neighbouring development), it's proof that the elegant geometric simplicity of modernism can be enlivened by detail and imagination without losing its integrity. The building is light and airy but striking and memorable, showing how high-rise developments need not be dull and predictable, and it has a wealth of detail that reveals interesting compositions at every angle.
Summit apartments from below


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