High-rise cities: enchanting cities?

The current online course I’m doing is called ‘Re-enchanting the city’ run by the University of New South Wales.  For a case-study it is using a development in Sydney called Central Park (not to be confused with New York’s more famous Central Park). Located next to the Central Rail Station, it is a development of apartments, offices, shops, food and drink outlets, and a park. It markets itself as Sydney’s new downtown. Early in week one we were introduced to the ideas of Associate Professor Vishaan Chakrabarti (Colombia University), who argues that ‘hyperdensity is good urban design’.[1] His definition is “density sufficient to support intensive public transportation systems – typically regarded as 30 dwelling units per acre or 75 units per hectare”, which “contributes to health, prosperity and sustainability of cities”.

Hyperdensity info graphic

His ideas are interesting and worth considering. Some can be found in three You Tube clips, which are taken from a lecture he gave at UNSW. The first one is here (6:17 mins): The second (12.47 mins) and the third (6.15 mins).

The course has also introduced me to the ideas of Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl. His approach focusses on spaces for people, particularly pedestrians and cyclists. I don’t know what he thinks about ‘hyperdensity’. Here’s an interview with him. According to Wikipedia, he “has been influential in Australia and New Zealand as well, where he prepared Public Life studies for the city centres of Melbourne (1994 and 2004), Perth (1995 and 2009), Adelaide (2002) Sydney (2007), Auckland (2008), Wellington (2004), Christchurch and Hobart (2010)”.[2] I hadn’t heard of him until I started this course.

The city I live in, Wellington, NZ, has a population of about 204,000 (with more in the Hutt Valley and Porirua areas). This relatively small size makes it difficult to “support intensive public transportation systems”. At least our inner city area is reasonably walkable, and certainly there is encouragement to higher density with more apartment blocks in the inner city and nearby and lower-rise ‘town houses’ in the suburbs. One in my suburb of Island Bay is currently under construction and this leaflet arrived in our letter box yesterday:

Island Bay property leafletAt $NZ695,000+ for this three-bedroom town house it is not housing for the poor!

One of the exercises we did in week one was to say what in our cities we find ‘enchanting’. In step 1.4 Associate Professor Oya Demirbilek, one of the tutors, said: “A key theme of the course is enchantment. This term suggests captivation, fascination, intense attraction, with an element of surprise, something beautiful and of magical quality, together resulting in feelings of wonder and delight.”

A part of my city I find ‘enchanting’ is the Civic Square – city-to-sea bridge –and waterfront area. We were asked to take some photos, but the technology only allowed one photo to be included. I should have reduced my area of enchantment as one photo cannot capture it all… so here I include some more photos. Civic Square includes the City Library, City Art Gallery, old town hall and council buildings. On the edge is the new town hall (called the Michael Fowler Centre – my post on ‘The Moorings and Michael Fowler Centre’ gives some information on it). The city-to-sea bridge is a pedestrian bridge over a busy road that gives access to the waterfront from Civic Square. I picture this as a walk – into and around the square before crossing the bridge and walking around the lagoon and going to the left along the waterfront. I could equally have gone to the right and been enchanted, but I had to limit it somehow.

Civic Square enchantment

City-to-Sea Bridge and lagoon


Blocks of flats (or apartments) are not new of course. In the 1920s four to six storey apartment buildings started being constructed in Wellington – ‘Inverleith’ (1922) on Oriental Parade is one of the earliest.  ‘Chevening’ (1929) in Kelburn and ‘Franconia‘ (1938) on The Terrace were another two I researched at Heritage New Zealand.



These were private luxury flats – also not for the poor. It was the government housing developments from the late 1930s that finally produced blocks of flats for poorer people. The Labour-party government elected in 1935 built thousands of single-dwelling state houses (my earlier post mentions the State house I grew up in, but this was built in 1950). Less well known are the 13 reinforced-concrete blocks of flats that were also built during the first Labour government, some are: Wellington’s Berhampore Flats (1939-40), Dixon Street Flats (1941-44), McLean Flats (1943-44) and Hanson Street Flats (1943-44) and Auckland’s Symonds Street Flats (1945-47) and Grey’s Avenue Flats (1945-47).[3] The Gordon Wilson Flats in Wellington were started under the National-party government and completed under the next Labour one in 1959. They were named after the recently deceased government architect.

Photos of McLean Flats reproduced from Julia Gatley, “For Modern Living: Government Blocks of Flats” in Zeal and Crusade: The Modern Movement in Wellington, John Wilson (ed), Te Waihora Press; p. 58:

Julia Gatley McLean F

A few years ago the Housing NZ Corporation sold the Gordon Wilson Flats at 320 The Terrace to Victoria University of Wellington. It is an ‘earthquake prone’ building, and is not currently habitable. The university wishes to demolish the building. The flats were on the City Council’s heritage list, but not on Heritage New Zealand’s Heritage List. The Wellington City Council recently rezoned the building from an Inner Residential Area to Institutional Precinct, and de-listed it from the heritage schedule: “This plan change would facilitate the demolition of this building and the development of the site by Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) for university purposes” (as quoted from the Council’s agenda for 11 May 2016). There was some (unsuccessful) opposition to the change – mainly from two groups – those who want the building retained because they argue it is an important Modernist building; and others – mainly neighbours – who are worried the university will build more student accommodation (some of the inner-city student blocks are getting a bad reputation with neighbours).

Gordon Wilson Flats (the large block) with the smaller McLean Flats to the left at right angles:gordon wilson flats

Recently the Housing NZ Corporation announced plans to build on four sites in Wellington, including the McLean Flats – where they “are looking at options for this site”. More information here. McLean Flats are not on Heritage NZ’s or the city council’s heritage lists, so they have no protection from demolition (insofar as being on a heritage list gives ‘protection’ anyway!)

Although I admire the Dixon Street Flats – and can appreciate other high rise blocks – I am yet to be convinced by the course that they are ‘enchanting’ – but then we are only up to week two of six! I do, however, find the Berhampore Flats enchanting – especially as Housing NZ Corporation recently renovated them and turned the community hall back into a community centre and added a children’s playground. Although these are not high rise, as they initially comprised 50 flats (46 now) they probably meet Professor Vishaan Chakrabarti’s low-rise hyperdensity criteria. And, at least, they have green space in the middle, something that many apartment blocks seem to lack. Although, as I re-look at my photos, there may be at least as much car parking space as green space!

Source for model of Berhampore (also known as Centennial Flats): Model of the Centennial Flats, Adelaide Road, Berhampore, Wellington. Making New Zealand: Negatives and prints from the Making New Zealand Centennial collection. Ref: MNZ-2160-1/2-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23071742

But ‘hyperdensity’ ideas aren’t new either, although perhaps the term is. In 1947 some architecture students in Wellington came up with a plan that would have seen “slum” housing in the Te Aro area of Wellington (most of the inner city) demolished and a new plan: “Shops are grouped round courts with wide pavements but no traffic. Another district is set aside for light industry, each factory block having its own road access apart from the main traffic arteries. The offices of commerce and government have a third area to themselves. The waterfront is opened up with gardens, through which hotels and cinemas are reached, and behind them are the bus stations. On the fringe of all this, dotting the slopes of Wellington’s girdle of hills, stand blocks of flats, freely disposed in open parkland—the only form of housing which should be tolerated in the heart of a modern city.”[4]

The plans were exhibited at a very popular exhibition at the city library.

Image on left reproduced from Julia Gatley, Vertical Living: The Architectural Centre and the Remaking of Wellington, Auckland University Press; image on right – see footnote 4


[1] Vishaan Chakrabarti is Founder of the Partnership for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU), a New York architecture and planning practice dedicated to the advancement of cities, and was previously a partner at SHoP Architects. He is also an Associate Professor of Practice at Columbia University. (UNSW ‘Re-enchanting the city’ course, step 1.8).

[2] Wikipedia entry on Jan Gehl: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Gehl accessed 16 May 2016. His Wellington study can be found here: http://wellington.govt.nz/your-council/plans-policies-and-bylaws/urban-development/strategies-plans-and-policies/city-to-waterfront-study/gehl-report I’m sorry to say, this is the first time I’ve come across it – and I haven’t, as yet, read it.

[3] Julia Gatley, “For Modern Living: Government Blocks of Flats” in Zeal and Crusade: The Modern Movement in Wellington, John Wilson (ed), Te Waihora Press; pp. 53-60.

[4]  ‘Te Aro Re-planned: A Study in Teamwork’.  Design Review: Volume 1, Issue 2 (July 1948) reproduced here http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Arc01_02DesR-t1-body-d1.html


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