Re­quiem for a dream

An iconic 1950s Auck­land build­ing faces de­mo­li­tion

HOME Magazine NZ - - Contents - Text Jeremy Hansen

They wanted to sani­tise a place they la­belled a slum, but ended up slowly re-cre­at­ing one. Early last cen­tury, Auck­land’s Grey Street (later re­named Greys Av­enue) was the heart of a bustling Chi­nese quar­ter, a place that caused au­thor­i­ties to fret about pros­ti­tutes, gam­blers and opium dens. Their mo­tives were likely tinged with racism – a Chi­nese neigh­bour­hood in the cen­tral city wasn’t uni­ver­sally re­garded as de­sir­able – but the city coun­cil and the Labour gov­ern­ment of the time nev­er­the­less de­cided to tidy it all up. Their am­bi­tions were enor­mous: Ju­lia Gat­ley’s book Long Live the Mod­ern de­scribes how the ini­tial plan was to ac­quire and raze ev­ery prop­erty on the street and erect more than 450 flats in their place. By the late 1940s, a rise in build­ing costs meant they set­tled for erect­ing four blocks con­tain­ing a to­tal of 50 units on the western side of the boule­vard in­stead. These build­ings were de­signed in sleek Euro­pean mod­ernist style by ar­chi­tects at the Hous­ing Di­vi­sion of the Min­istry of Works un­der the lead­er­ship of Gor­don Wil­son. They are now clas­si­fied as a Cat­e­gory Two His­toric Place. Less than a decade later, Wil­son and his team again turned their at­ten­tion to Greys Av­enue, this time up the hill on the south­ern end of the street. They de­signed a slen­der nine-floor build­ing con­tain­ing 86 flats, most of them com­pact two-storey ‘maisonettes’ with two bed­rooms and a bath­room above a sim­ple liv­ing area and kitchen. Com­pleted in 1958, the Upper Greys Av­enue Flats were for lower- or mid­dle-in­come sin­gle­tons or cou­ples who de­sired a life in the city. The build­ing presents a slab-like face lined with walk­ways to the street, while the north­ern el­e­va­tion, with its in­tri­cate ar­range­ments of win­dows and lit­tle in­set bal­conies, has a more hu­man scale. A sep­a­rate lift tower adds a dra­matic flour­ish. The build­ing is

a beau­ti­fully mon­u­men­tal piece of ar­chi­tec­ture, so­cial hous­ing on a scale that this coun­try hasn’t seen since. But there’s a prob­lem. Hous­ing New Zealand, which owns and man­ages the build­ing, now plans to de­mol­ish it. In some ways, it’s not hard to see why. I vis­ited the flats in mid-April with Hous­ing New Zealand’s regional man­ager Neil Adams, ad­vi­sor Scott Fo­ley, and com­mu­ni­ca­tions ad­vi­sor Sar­cha Hayter. The build­ing still has great bones, but looks tired and ne­glected. Fo­ley gave us a de­press­ing health and safety brief­ing in the Hous­ing New Zealand of­fice on the ground floor, where a se­cu­rity guard is sta­tioned out­side and banks of mon­i­tors re­lay feeds from cam­eras all over the build­ing. We were told to watch out for ob­jects like shop­ping carts fall­ing from the open-air walk­ways, and to be wary of res­i­dents who might be­come dis­tressed or ag­gres­sive if they saw us. In re­cent years, po­lice have some­times been called to the build­ing more than 60 times a month, al­though new se­cu­rity mea­sures such as a fence around the prop­erty have re­duced this num­ber. There has been a ma­chete at­tack (the per­son who was at­tacked sur­vived). Another per­son was in­jured af­ter jump­ing from a bal­cony when be­ing threat­ened by some­one else in the build­ing. The orig­i­nal ar­chi­tects prob­a­bly didn’t an­tic­i­pate any of this. The flats, Adams says, “weren’t de­signed for this level of com­plex­ity”.

Hous­ing New Zealand now wants to de­mol­ish the build­ing to erect some­thing big­ger: a brand-new de­vel­op­ment with 250 to 300 apart­ments, three times the num­ber the cur­rent build­ing holds. But it isn’t just the size that mat­ters. Adams and Fo­ley say the cur­rent flats are no longer fit for pur­pose. The two-level units aren’t suit­able for ag­ing ten­ants who find it dif­fi­cult to climb the stairs from the liv­ing area ev­ery time they need to use the bath­room. The long open-air walk­ways that con­nect the apart­ments on each floor mean the in­flu­ence of dis­rup­tive ten­ants spreads quickly, mak­ing some res­i­dents afraid of leav­ing their homes. The two-bed­room con­fig­u­ra­tion of most of the flats can be prob­lem­atic: some ten­ants who moved to Greys Av­enue to es­cape toxic liv­ing en­vi­ron­ments are pres­sured by friends and fam­ily mem­bers to al­low them to use their spare bed­rooms, which means the prob­lems they are try­ing to leave be­hind fol­low them to their new homes. These is­sues aren’t unique to this build­ing. Mod­ernist hous­ing blocks like it have had ter­ri­ble global press, but it’s too sim­plis­tic to say their de­sign is so­ley re­spon­si­ble for the ills that have be­fallen them. Yes, many of them had in­suf­fi­cient con­sid­er­a­tion for the var­ied needs of the res­i­dents who would oc­cupy them. But many of them were also poorly man­aged. Rather than cre­at­ing mixed com­mu­ni­ties for res­i­dents from dif­fer­ent back­grounds and in­come lev­els, these build­ings of­ten be­came iso­lated mono­cul­tures. Peo­ple were given poorly main­tained apart­ments, in­suf­fi­cient so­cial sup­port and, in many cases, in­ad­e­quate ed­u­ca­tional or em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties. The re­sults of this ne­glect – of an aus­tere, short-sighted ap­proach to so­cial wel­fare – are abun­dantly ev­i­dent in Upper Greys Av­enue to­day. Adams and Fo­ley say the new build­ing that’s been planned for Greys Av­enue, for which ren­der­ings aren’t yet avail­able, will fol­low best prac­tice in­ter­na­tion­ally. It will be de­signed by Mode, an Aus­tralian firm with of­fices in Viet­nam, In­dia and Auck­land. It will house a va­ri­ety of Hous­ing New Zealand ten­ants – old and young, high-needs and in­de­pen­dent. (Hous­ing New Zealand has been con­sult­ing cur­rent res­i­dents about re­hous­ing them while con­struc­tion of the new build­ing takes place). Sup­port ser­vices such as a med­i­cal clinic and other fa­cil­i­ties will be lo­cated on site. The new units will mean an ex­ist­ing part­ner­ship with Hous­ing First, a suc­cess­ful pi­lot pro­gramme which re­houses home­less peo­ple and pro­vides them with wrap­around sup­port ser­vices, can be ex­panded. It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that restor­ing the build­ing wouldn’t be an im­pos­si­ble task. The Lower Greys Av­enue Flats and Welling­ton’s Cen­ten­nial Flats in Ber­ham­pore (1939-40, now a Cat­e­gory One His­toric Place, and also de­signed by Gor­don Wil­son’s team) have been suc­cess­fully ren­o­vated in re­cent years for Hous­ing New Zealand ten­ants. Col­lec­tively, these build­ings re­veal a his­tory of medium-den­sity so­cial hous­ing in this coun­try, an im­por­tant coun­ter­point to the dom­i­nant cottage-in-a-gar­den nar­ra­tive of the stand-alone state house. But the Upper Greys Av­enue Flats are that awk­ward age where they haven’t been granted her­itage pro­tec­tion. The way the build­ing is sited of­fers few op­por­tu­ni­ties to den­sify around it with­out com­pro­mis­ing light, sun and ac­cess to the ex­ist­ing flats. And now Auck­land’s acute hous­ing cri­sis means try­ing to save the build­ing looks like bour­geois in­dul­gence. It could be gen­tri­fied, for ex­am­ple, with re­fur­bished apart­ments sold at mar­ket rates. But this would be an ex­pen­sive ex­er­cise for a pri­vate de­vel­oper, and in­sist­ing on the re­ten­tion of the build­ing would de­press the value of the site if Hous­ing New Zealand chose to sell it, di­min­ish­ing the num­ber of new homes the or­gan­i­sa­tion could cre­ate else­where. The flats could be ren­o­vated to con­tain a mix of mar­ket rate and so­cial hous­ing units, but this still means los­ing the op­por­tu­nity a new build­ing of­fers to pro­vide much more ac­com­mo­da­tion for peo­ple in need. Which brings us to an un­com­fort­able ei­ther/ or sit­u­a­tion: ar­gu­ing for the re­ten­tion of an ar­chi­tec­turally im­por­tant build­ing means you are stand­ing in the way of the pro­vi­sion of more so­cial hous­ing, which is some­thing I would never want to do. So I find my­self re­luc­tantly as­sent­ing to the de­mo­li­tion of a build­ing that feels like an old friend, a struc­ture I ap­pre­ci­ate ev­ery time I walk by. I wish we were a cul­ture that em­braced more nu­ance; that we were able to avoid the stu­pid­ity of con­stantly forc­ing our­selves into these need­lessly bi­nary sit­u­a­tions. Above all, I hope we’ve learned from his­tory, and that these con­tem­po­rary clean-slate as­pi­ra­tions don’t re­sult in the same mis­takes our pre­de­ces­sors made. The last thing we want is to cre­ate yet another mess for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to clean up.

1. An archival shot of the Upper Greys Av­enue Flats de­signed by the Hous­ing Di­vi­sion of the Min­istry of Works un­der Gor­don Wil­son, pho­tographed soon af­ter their com­ple­tion in 1958. 2. The build­ing’s street frontage on Greys Av­enue shows the open-air walk­ways. 3. The glass stair­well at the south­ern end of the build­ing.

Archival image of the build­ing show­ing the sep­a­rate lift tower.

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