Before its time in its simplicity and use of industrial materials, a block of Christchurch flats has now been recognised as a milestone in mid-20th-century architecture.
Sir Miles Warren’s Dorset Street flats (one of the architect’s earliest designs) were built in 1956-57 and were described back then as “one of the ugliest buildings in the city”. Busloads of jeerers drove past and for a while the flats were known as Fort Dorset and their Corbusier and new brutalist-inspired detailing compared to a prison block.
However, the building’s compact, integrated, clean-lined elegance and effective use of mundane concrete Vibrapac cinder blocks created a sense of efficiency, security and reassurance. It was the first in the Christchurch style of modernism - low and sturdy against the Canterbury winters and in stark contrast to Plischke’s airy wood-and-glass Bauhaus manner or the old Edwardian and Victorian houses. In May this year it was honoured with Category 1 historic places status.
Reading the times exactly, Sir Miles provided a new kind of residential living in New Zealand: compact, purpose-designed, modern, modest-sized, one-bedroomed flats for independent urban singles with few possessions. He designed built-in furniture and fittings for all the flats, reflecting his passion for total design. They became the inspiration for many single and multi-unit houses in the city. Commonplace now, Warren & Mahoney’s use of load-bearing concrete block was revolutionary.
Sir Miles writes of this in his 2008 autobiography: “Like most young New Zealand architects coming to Europe for the first time, I discovered a sense of the solidity of masonry walls - their weight, their load-bearing capacity, their sense of enclosure, all in marked contrast to our thin 4 x 2-inch partition walls”. The Christchurch City Council was so concerned about stability (the Napier earthquake was still a far-from-distant memory for New Zealanders) that it insisted on reinforced-concrete columns for additional support.
When interviewed by the Christchurch Art Gallery Bulletin on the occasion of the gallery’s Warren retrospective (Miles: A life in architecture, 2009), owner of the flats and former resident David Turner had this to say: “Miles’ choice of materials, colours and building-style brought a breath of fresh air to the staid and rather ordinary architecture of the day. He gave a huge amount of thought to how people would live in these spaces and he provided the necessary tools for them to live in a modern way.
“The front of the living-room area has a huge glass door which slides back to give a great indoor/outdoor flow and the bedroom has a glass Dutch (two-part) door that allows access to the courtyard garden. The concrete beams give a sense of solidity and in their battleship-grey colour look almost industrial. With their timber slatted ceilings over a dark base, the downstairs flats have a very cosy and comfortable, almost cosseted, feel”.
The expert consensus is clear. These buildings are a special taonga in the canon of New Zealand modernist architecture.
Andrew Paul Wood
BETTE FLAGLER (ed), “New Zealand Heritage”, Spring 2010, New Zealand Historic Places Trust, 2010. ISSN: 1175-9615, p 9.