Dorset Street Flats not looking too happy (March 2016). But things are happening behind the scenes...
Warren is the most significant architect working during this period. His South Island roots have had a strong influence on his architectural style, particularly during the seminal period when modern architecture became regionally distinct. He first made a mark with the Dorset Street Flats, eight modest dwellings grouped into two walk up forms. The structural system consists of concrete masonry walls, a cast in situ concrete floor system and lightweight roof. Here Warren foreshadows the language of detailing that would punctuate his career and influence so many others. Every junction, every opportunity is used to express the nature of the materials and method /process of building. The concrete floor and beam support structure are left unfinished, set off from the concrete masonry walls that are painted white to derive maximum effect from the intense New Zealand light. The combination of concrete ‘brut’ and painted concrete masonry became the hallmark of the work of Warren & Mahoney for some 25 years. Concrete masonry offered opportunity to imbue wall surfaces with scale and texture while accommodating the structural requirements for this seismically active area. The 20cm x20cm x 40cm module of the concrete block influenced virtually every dimension and detail, horizontal and vertical.
MORTEN GJERDE, “New Zealand’s Concrete Heritage In Housing”, Concrete Vol 54 Issue 4 (December 2010/January 2011), Adam Leach (ed), CCANZ (Cement & Concrete Association of New Zealand), 2010, ISSN 1174-8540, pp 14-17.
Excerpt from Sir Miles Warren's autobiography on his career-making Dorset Street Flats.
UGLY BUILDING? GOOD!
In this excerpt from Miles Warren: An Autobiography, one of the country’s best architects looks back over his life - and the controversial development that helped make his name.
In my second-year sixth form the headmaster asked me what I intended to be when I left school. “An architect, sir.” His response: “Oh, Warren minor, we had high hopes for you.” Clearly, in his eyes, I was about to enter an occupation, not a profession, and one that was akin to carpentry or plumbing. The only respectable professions were law or medicine; accountancy was mere bean counting - a trade.
When I told my father I wanted to be an architect he gave a noncommittal humph. Then, sensibly, and unbeknown to me, he called upon all the architects he knew - Heathcote Helmore of Helmore & Cotterill, Alan Manson, Gordon Lucas and Cecil Wood; that is, all the city’s best-known architects at the time, except Bill Trengrove. They all, without exception, told Father architecture was a dying profession that offered no future. I was not daunted by this sobering news. I somehow knew that architecture was the only thing I might be good at and monetary reward did not seem at all important.
[After graduating from the University of Auckland and working in London Miles Warren returned to Christchurch. One of his notable early projects was the Dorset Street flats.]
Back in 1956 Michael Weston, Simon Wood and Michael Davis and I, all bachelors, decided to build a block of eight flats for our own occupation and to let. By good luck we found an ideal site in little Dorset Street, which runs between Victoria Street and Park Terrace, next to Bishops Court (now Bishopspark Retirement Village). Unusually for Christchurch, it had a long 115-foot (35m) frontage instead of the standard narrow 53-foot (16.2m) width running a long way back. For me it was the perfect commission - my partners gave me a free hand and I was able to put my theories into practice and stuff the design full of everything I knew, including all my university and London experience.
The essence of the building is that, instead of the typical New Zealand light timber-framed structure, solid masonry walls bear the weight of the building. Each flat is simply a box of concrete-block walls, with two full-height openings to the north, and slots to the rear. Within the outer box are two further ‘solid’ boxes, one for the bathroom and the other the wardrobe. I developed recessed window and door detailing, with the frames set away from the wall to emphasise the depth of the concrete block. The underside of the first-floor concrete slabs was lined with 3-foot x 1-inch (1m x 2.54cm) boards.
These flats, our first use of concrete block and fairface concrete exposed both inside and outside in habitable rooms, followed one of the basic tenets of modernism: that buildings should demonstrate their structure, how they are built and the materials with which they are made. It was a form of modernism that came to be named, unfortunately, brutalism.
The Dorset Street Flats were regarded as the ugliest buildings in town; the tour buses regularly detoured to see what was dubbed ‘Fort Dorset”. As a young architect I was proud to achieve such notoriety. Our friends thought we were so poor we could not afford plaster on the concrete block. Internally, the bare walls were seen as a counterpoint to the soft textures of rugs, curtains and furnishings, and externally the garden walls as a background to luxuriant planting. Could we have foreseen all the drear concrete-block motels to come?
The builders were Cecil Davenport and his brother Snow, both rather dour and humourless, and a pesky apprentice. About halfway through building, Davenport, exasperated by my attitude, demanded to know why I looked so critical and unhappy with the work. He had misread me: I was being hard on myself and was worried about my design and detailing, not about his good workmanship.
Christchurch concrete block in those days was very porous. In heavy rain, the water filled the cavities in the two skin walls and flooded the floors, a disaster just before the flats were to be occupied. The blocklayer had failed to make weepholes at the foot of the walls, and I asked Davenport to drill appropriate holes. I had the satisfaction of seeing the water spout out into his face.
Michael Weston and I did a lot of work on the flats - painting, fixing staircases, laying bricks and making gardens. We got on very well together, and making buildings became our favourite hobby. For the next 15 years we continued to build small blocks of flats; there was not a month we were not building or designing. In one go the flats established new building techniques that were continued and developed over the next 10 years.
Miles Warren: An Autobiography is published by Canterbury University Press. The exhibition Miles: A Life In Architectureruns from March 7 to June 14 at the Christchurch Art Gallery. Sir Miles is also designing a garden for the Ellerslie Flower Show, which runs in Christchurch from March 11-15.
“Home New Zealand”, Feb/Mar 2009, ACP Magazines, ISSN 9 414576 002527 02, pp 44-45.
Reproduced with the permission of the publisher.
Christchurch architect Don Donnithorne dies aged 90.
Don Donnithorne never stopped being an architect. He didn't want to.
"Everyone used to say to him: 'When are you retiring?'" son Martin Donnithorne said.
"He would look on in disgust and say ‘never'."
So it was, then, that he never officially retired from his eponymous Christchurch practice, although poor health following a stroke in 2013 forced him from the business in all but name.
Donnithorne died at Parklands Hospital on Friday, five days after his 90th birthday.
Along with contemporaries Sir Miles Warren and the late Peter Beaven, he was part of a new school of architects who dominated Christchurch's post-war cityscape with clean, modernist designs.
A devout Anglican, church work was a specialty, including a reordering of Christ Church Cathedral in the 1980s. He raised eyebrows with his unconventional design to repair the earthquake damaged building in 2012.
Major secular accomplishments included the Wigram Air Force Museum, the Netball Centre in Hagley Park and the old Millbrook Apartments on Carlton Mill Rd.
His own home in Upper Riccarton, which he designed while a student in the 1950s, became perhaps his best-known work. It had a marked Scandinavian influence and was the only home he and his wife Dawn ever lived in. They had five children.
"Very straightforward simple form, predominant roof, no eaves," Warren said.
"Dismissed as a mere shed, but in architectural terms very influential. He proceeded to design numbers of houses which became more complex and elaborate . . . I think he will be best known for his domestic work."
That work was characterised by similarly crisp forms and a preference for natural materials – much like his hero, Frank Lloyd Wright.
"Frank Lloyd Wright meant a lot to Dad," Martin Donnithorne said.
"He went to the [United] States quite a few times for tours of Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings. He was a great expert on Frank Lloyd Wright, he could tell you anything about him."
Martin Donnithorne, who has taken over his father's business, said his dad saw a kindred spirit in the unorthodox American architect.
"Frank Lloyd Wright, as we all know, was quite eccentric and Dad was quite eccentric too.
"[He had a] mad love of cars. Dad had a collection of Lancia cars which was quite extraordinary. He had about a dozen of them at one stage. People used to think he was a nut. Why in the hell do you collect those cars? They don't go, they break down all the time.
"It was just that love of good design and beauty and something that was not the norm."
Don Donnithorne's atypical taste extended into his wardrobe, where he could call on the services of his brother, a tailor.
"He had all his suits all tailored, as many of us did," friend Maurice Mahoney said.
"But Don would not just have an ordinary grey suit by any means. He'd have some bright pattern or pale colour. Quite different from anyone else."
Mahoney, who famously went on to partner with Warren, was a couple of years behind Donnithorne in what became known as the "Christchurch Atelier" – a group of architecture students who studied by correspondence to avoid relocating to Auckland to attend the country's only school.
"He was very friendly and a bit of a mentor to me, being a couple of years ahead," Mahoney said.
"He also had great imagination and was able to put that to great use. He stood out amongst the group of architectural students in those days. As, of course, did Miles. I was more of the putting together man, not actually an instinctive designer, but Don certainly was."
That instinct had a habit of pre-empting the design phase of a project if Donnithorne saw a disused building with potential. The Library Chambers building, on the corner of Hereford St and Cambridge Tce, was one such salvage job.
"That was Dad just going in and working out a scheme," Martin Donnithorne said.
"He'd see jobs round town. He'd draw something up and take it to them and say, 'This is what you could do'. Now and again some people would embrace it. Other people would basically tell him to p… off."
Don Donnithorne didn't mind. He had an innate sense of fairness, his son said. He treated everyone on a building site as an equal, but never suffered fools and never erred from speaking his mind.
"A lot of architects won't because they're frightened that if they voice their opinion they're going to lose work out of it. Dad did not worry about that at all. He would say exactly what he thought."
On his 90th birthday last Sunday, Donnithorne, incapacitated by his stroke, said very little, but enough to voice approval of a gift from his friend. Mahoney had found a picture of Donnithorne in an old edition of Architecture New Zealand magazine and had it framed.
"He certainly enjoyed it," Mahoney said.
The picture showed Donnithorne posing with three of his Lancias. He was standing in the driveway of his Upper Riccarton home, with his Taliesin visible in the background. Always the architect.
Posting from Young Architects
The Dorset Street Flats have been badly damaged in the earthquakes that have struck Christchurch in the years following and including the initial 04 September 2010 earthquake.
We've been commissioned by the majority insurer (Southern Response) and approved by the other insurers involved (IAG, Medical Assurance, and Tower Insurance) to start the documentation and scoping of the repair of the Dorset Street Flats.
This is a huge honour, as these buildings are among the most important in New Zealand's architectural history.
Greg Young, the managing director of Young Architects, is probably the most qualified person in New Zealand to be undertaking the lead of this repair, after working for both the original structural engineers (Holmes Consulting Group) and architects (Warren and Mahoney Architects).
These buildings were also recently featured on TVNZ's The New Zealand Home (https://www.tvnz.co.nz/ondemand/the-new-zealand-home).
We'll be updating this regularly as we progress in more depth.
Please also refer to www.dorsetstreetflats.com for further information.
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