Friday, 12 November 2010


I was in Wellington at the weekend. I don't get there as often as I'd like, but this weekend was my nephew's first birthday. Well - pedantry alert - it was really the first anniversary of his birthday. But you know what I mean.

It was, overall, quite an odd experience, like being trapped inside a bad play. Most of the action took place in two bland sets - a cheap motel room in Lower Hutt and a new townhouse clinging to a hillside at the back end of Johnsonville. The dialogue was banal and repetitive and the characters were neither interesting or believable - a rare feat in literature, as characters that are not unbelieveably interesting are usually realistically dull. The point of it all escaped me, and seemed to have escaped the director and cast as well, as they loafed through their scenes without any clear purpose. But that's my life for you ...

Houses interest me in odd ways. As a record of social processes in action, they're hard to beat. The house I'm sitting in just now in an ex-state house, built to the highest specifications in the 1940s, when socialist ideas were more fashionable and the idea that the working classes should have access to good, robust housing wasn't a bad joke. Oddly, of course, it was built during a recession and a war, which makes one wonder at the current fad for austerity.

My brother-and-sister-in-law's house, on the other hand, is a modern townhouse, built on a steep hillside. You go in at the top, and go downstairs to the tiny patch of garden (my house has a decent sized section, in accordance with the 'garden city' ethos that infused the old state house developments). The lawn is a small rectangle of grass, but it is over shadowed by the fences around it, the other houses crowding about, and the small deck, which is boosted up to the level of the main floor of the house on two stalwart columns.

The house itself doesn't rest on a knuckle of rock like a house I used to live in up in Auckland, but clings, snail like, to the hillside, supported by a generous dollop of concrete at the bottom. I'm no structural engineer, but the who thing looked a bit precarious and rather un-thought through, especially for a city awaiting a major earthquake. In fairness, the property looked a lot more securely moored than the ones I spotted across the valley, which seemed t be built entirely on stilts.

What the development reminded me of, oddly, was those hideous Eastern European Brutalist housing developments - the cramped apartments, each with their own tiny balcony, sandwiched together into a massive wall of concrete and glass, a material expression of communist ideology and conformity. Well, that attitude exists in New Zealand, in those Johnsonville developments, with their tiny token decks and tissue sized token patches of lawn, crammed together onto barely viable land.

(For the record, I'm actually quite a fan of Brutalist architecture, and one of the Palmerston North council building's few fans; but even I recognise you can have too much of a good thing)

Note, though, there's one difference between these houses and the Eastern European concrete jungles, or the old state house developments. The latter, of course, were designed to house the working classes, make affordable housing available for them. he growing Wellington suburbs - with few parks, playgrounds, shops or other amenities and connected to the rest of the city by narrow roads that are too steep for cycling or walking, and poorly served by public transport.

They're designed with the aspiring middle classes in mind. That's why they have all the features that the middle classes think they need in a house - the deck, the lawn, never mind that they're not worth boasting about. The houses are big enough to put themselves out of the reach of working class families and - probably - most middle class families on one income. As I said, without a car - or two - they're almost unlivable, as they're remote, cut off, and inaccessible by any means other than an internal combustion engine. Though you'll struggle to find parking for said engine. When we were there, the narrow street was almost blocked by parked cars - and they had completely colonised the pavements, so if you did want to walk somewhere, you had to traverse your neighbour's properties.

They're an exercise in social engineering, as blatant as my old state house development, but informed by radically different values. This is concrete realisation of the profit motive in housing - the highest concentration of high value buyers, on land that no sane person would build on, authorised by a council interested in squeezing the highest quantity of rate payers possible into the least space.

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