Zealand Institute of Architects
School of Architecture
School of Architecture, Auckland
University School of Architecture, Wellington
Building Castles in the Swamp
Early last century
Christchurch was a swampy frontier town with an unnatural taste for the
grand stone ramparts of Gothic Revival architecture. Now an award-winning
apartment conversion sees Southern Gothic experiencing a new revival.
mad, brilliant and hugely influential True Principles of Pointed or
Christian Architecture made Gothic Revival the Church of England house
style and colonial Christchurch was a town determined to be more English
New Zealands Garden City clung to the faux-ancient façades
of the Revival longer than the rest of the world though. What are now
The Peterborough apartments began life as the Christchurch Teachers
Training College, designed by Canterbury Education Board Architect George
Penlington, and completed in 1930, just a year before the Empire State
Responding to criticism that the College didnt really need a castle,
the Board Chairman Ernest Andrews explained that all the other local educational
institutions were grey stone piles so why not his. Bureaucrats, it seems,
have always been susceptible to the Edifice Complex.
Having gone to some lengths to fake up a past, Christchurch has since
shown scant interest in preserving what little it has.
Christchurch has been buggered, says Stewart Ross, the architect
responsible for the Peterborough conversion. Weve got a few
places weve saved and we think theyre pretty good but weve
lost so many lovely old buildings.
The illusion of antiquity seems to have protected the citys Gothic
monuments. Along with the Training College, the Cathedral, Museum, Normal
School, Provincial Chambers and the old University have all escaped the
When the College first fell into private hands there were plans to turn
it into a boutique hotel and Ross was brought in as a consultant. When
the developers did the math on the Japanese architects rather grandiose
plans they realised that the numbers didnt add up. To tempt a new
buyer Ross was asked to sketch a plan to turn the College into apartments.
Robert Brown Construction liked the plans so much they bought the building,
and the final result differs little from Rosss initial sketch.
From the street the building still presents the same intimidating face
it did in its heyday.
main entrance on the south west corner features four metre high, iron-hinged,
heavy-timbered double doors flanked by crenellated octagonal turrets,
and pierced by archers embrasures, perhaps in case of an attack
by a rival seat of learning.
Limestone detailing leavens the gloom of the dark basalt, and buttresses
and peaked bays break up the boxy forms of the southern and eastern blocks.
The grand scale of the original building offered interesting possibilities
for the internal arrangements. Ground floor apartments have a living/dining/kitchen
area overlooked by a mezzanine studio. The double-height ceilings and
four metre high windows combine to create an effect that could be called
Cosy Baronial - small flats with an air of grandeur. Luckily the original
architect only nodded towards the narrow arches of gothic glazing, adding
token pointy bits inside what are essentially large, square windows, so
that even the dark south-facing side gets plenty of natural light.
In the lower apartments the main bedroom and ensuite are in the old connecting
corridors while in the upper units these have been put in the opened up
roof space. Effectively five levels up, these rooms have spectacular views
to the north and west over the green expanse of Hagley Park and out across
the Plains towards the Southern Alps.
The regions river plain geology caused some problems.
Its not the best place for big buildings, says Ross,
Its basically a swamp with a river meandering through. Underneath
theres river silt, a bit of shingle and peat.
To make matters worse, the obvious, if not only place for onsite parking
was underground. The heavy stone and brick building had already slumped
and broken its back, probably within a year of being completed, so digging
a large pit in the middle of the complex was not without risks.
When I first saw the hole I was horrified. The engineers kept talking
about liquefaction during an earthquake and I thought they were exaggerating
but the bulldozers and diggers were just wallowing down there. It was
like wet porridge.
Giant steel girders parallel to the outside walls were pinned deep into
the ground and cross-braced through the foundations. The walls of the
basement were sheet-piled to stop the whole complex from collapsing into
the car park and the floor is a massive concrete slab.
The slab has to be heavy enough so it wont bob up as the groundwater
rises. Otherwise one wet morning you might find you didnt have far
to go to get your car.
Though the car park is hidden beneath a carpet of turf and the original
elm trees are still flourishing, the central courtyard is one of the few
external areas Ross altered significantly.
We didnt want to create new architecture, we just wanted to
do the job as simply and honestly as we could so that our intrusions didnt
compromise the original fabric, he says.
Despite the warm and welcoming brick and limestone inner walls, the courtyard
retained an institutional air. To individualise each apartment Ross designed
elegantly proportioned additions that combine bay windows downstairs with
balconies above, as well as simple steel rail fences enclosing small private
patios, creating a feeling of privacy without sacrificing a sense of community.
Rosss tread lightly approach earned The Peterborough
a New Zealand Institute of Architects Heritage and Conservation Award.
The architects skilful detailing of the new bay windows and
balconies in the central courtyard demonstrates his concern to minimise
alterations to the buildings exterior, said the judges. While
the new additions are clearly articulated, they remain subordinate to
the original structure, thus creating a sense of cultural layering.
Respect is the important thing, says Ross. You have
to respect the context, the surroundings, respect what others have done
before you. By exercising that sort of respect we probably achieved a