Density done right: Fountain Court
In my previous examples of good medium- to high-density residential buildings, I've covered a range of styles, periods and typologies, from narrow yet detached Edwardian houses to contemporary high rise. A style that I've missed so far is one that's by no means typical, but surprisingly common in Wellington: medium-rise Art Deco apartment buildings. There are good examples scattered around the place (on The Terrace, in the Aro Valley and Mt Victoria), but one of my favourites is the Fountain Court flats at 48-54 Oriental Parade.
At three storeys, it's hardly imposing, yet it gives quite a high density. The broad U-shaped plan provides light and views, yet the way that it's built right to the street edge allows for a fairly high site coverage. There's also scope for shared social spaces, in the courtyard, on the roof and in the open staircases inside, something that's missing from a lot of recent apartment blocks with their anonymous, hotel-like corridors. Even buildings with such spaces often struggle to generate any inter-apartment social life, but from what I can gather (including some very interesting parties), this is certainly a place to be sociable.
I'm no architectural historian, and I haven't been able to find out much about its origins, but I'd say this falls towards the Moderne end of the Art Deco spectrum, since it lacks streamlining, setbacks and flamboyant detail. In fact, apart from some simple mouldings and elegant railings, it looks much more like an austere post-War Modernist building. It owes its character and appeal to the court itself, with its tiled fountain and greenery. This much more than the token light well that gets reluctantly shoved into recent apartment blocks: it's wide enough to open up to the street and views, while providing a privacy transition and giving the the building as a whole a sense of identity. While I don't think I've ever seen the fountain actually working, it gives the courtyard a focus, and although there's no "garden" as such, the plants soften the building and help screen the ground floor apartments from the street.
I've often said that one of the challenges that New Zealand faces in making a transition to more compact cities is that we lack a tradition of high-density urban living. While it's true that Wellington's inner residential neighbourhoods offer surprisingly high density by the standards of detached dwellings, we certainly have very few pre-War examples of terraced housing or apartments, and blocks like Fountain Court stand out as relatively rare.
In fact, it feels distinctly foreign, almost like something you might find in California or parts of Europe rather than in good old New Zild. A neighborhood consisting of similar examples would be unmistakably urban, without being part of the CBD, and courtyards like could this provide a range of options for shared facilities (gardens, swimming pools, tennis courts) that would make this sort of living appeal to a wider range of people. It's hard to imagine a developer spontaneously sacrificing so many lucrative square metres, but perhaps the volume restrictions in the new Central Area rules will make typologies like this more of an option in the future.