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

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Southern sojourn

It's back to blogging after Christmas in Christchurch, and I thought I'd start off with some observations as a break from this site's Wellington focus. Christchurch has recently suffered a deluge of suburban sprawl and big-box mania that is making the outer suburbs even flatter and duller (if possible), but there are some positive things happening in the inner city, so I'll concentrate on those and the lessons they offer for Wellington.

Lichfield Lanes montage (Christchurch)A few blocks southeast of Cathedral Square, the Lichfield Lanes precinct has taken a long time to get going, but is starting to look good. This project makes the most of the sort of back alleys and crumbling old industrial buildings that have been neglected for too long, reinventing them as an intimate, characterful mixed-use neighbourhood. It's difficult to judge how successful it is when everything is closed for Christmas, but there seems to be a nice range of bars, galleries and small businesses taking root here.

Similar things are happening just along Lichfield St, but here the mix includes some new buildings that fit in quite nicely despite (or perhaps because of) their use of modern materials and forms. One of these houses Minx, a stylish and original restaurant whose underground bar Rootes impressed The Sifter last year. I've long thought that there are parts of Wellington that could benefit from a similar treatment, but I'll explore that later.

Neo-Modernist buildings in ChristchurchContrast this with what's going on north of the square, especially around Cranmer Square and Victoria St. Here, there are a number of new residential developments that are unashamedly modernist, dominated by rectilinear forms, white walls and glass. They're far from boring cuboid blocks, though, due to complex stepped volumes and deeply detailed façades. One of the best is the award-winning Establishment apartment block by Warren & Mahoney.

It's interesting to see a shift from Peter "I am not a modernist" Beaven's quasi-Gothic pitched roofs towards a crisp international style. It could be argued that these are anonymous buildings that could be anywhere, and that they thus reduce the sense of place and uniqueness. But I think that many of them actually nestle quite well into the leafy surroundings: there's something restful and "natural" about calm white-walled modernism surrounded by mature trees (Tel Aviv is the classic example). Besides, there's nothing "indigenous" about the heavy colonial Gothic of Beaven's beloved Mountfort, and even Hank Dittmar agrees that high modernism can become a local style. This style might not work quite so well in blustery, vertiginous Wellington as it does in flat and leafy Christchurch, but if long-term plans for "urban villages" on the Thorndon railyards go ahead, some of these developments could be a useful inspiration.


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