new zealand architecture

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Stewart Ross
Team Architecture

New Zealand Institute of Architects

Historic Places Trust

Auckland School of Architecture

Unitec School of Architecture, Auckland

Victoria University School of Architecture, Wellington

 

Building Castles in the Swamp

Southern Gothic

by Nicholas Butler

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.The inner courtyard of The Peterborough disguises the underground carpark beneath a carpet of turf.

Augustus Pugin’s 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 than England.

New Zealand’s 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 Building.

The main entrance features octagonal turrets and archers’ embrasures, perhaps in case of attack by rival seats of learning. Responding to criticism that the College didn’t 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. “We’ve got a few places we’ve saved and we think they’re pretty good but we’ve lost so many lovely old buildings.”

The illusion of antiquity seems to have protected the city’s Gothic monuments. Along with the Training College, the Cathedral, Museum, Normal School, Provincial Chambers and the old University have all escaped the wrecking ball.

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 architect’s rather grandiose plans they realised that the numbers didn’t 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 Ross’s initial sketch.

From the street the building still presents the same intimidating face it did in its heyday.

The main entrance features crenellated octagonal turrets pierced with archer's embrasures, perhaps in case of attack by a rival seat of learningThe 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 archer’s 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 region’s river plain geology caused some problems.

“It’s not the best place for big buildings,” says Ross, “It’s basically a swamp with a river meandering through. Underneath there’s 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.

"The bulldozers were just wallowing down there. It was like porridge" “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 won’t bob up as the groundwater rises. Otherwise one wet morning you might find you didn’t 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 didn’t want to create new architecture, we just wanted to do the job as simply and honestly as we could so that our intrusions didn’t 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.

Ross’s ‘tread lightly’ approach earned The Peterborough a New Zealand Institute of Architects Heritage and Conservation Award.

“The architect’s skilful detailing of the new bay windows and balconies in the central courtyard demonstrates his concern to minimise alterations to the building’s 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 reasonable result.”