The buildings that shape us

DOMED: The Arlington apartments complex on Hopper St
DOMED: The Arlington apartments complex on Hopper St

Sometimes all it takes is a different bus route to see your city with fresh eyes. Recently, on the city-bound No 7, I noticed a structure resembling an airport control tower atop the main block of the Pukehinau Flats. At the time I was listening to Jennifer Egan's The Keep, a novel about two cousins converting an Eastern European castle into a hotel, so perhaps it's no wonder I became fascinated with this glazed stronghold at the bottom of Brooklyn Hill. What had the architect intended? Surveillance? Storage? A kind of penthouse? How was this space being used now?

Walking home that evening I passed another council building, Arlington Apartments in Hopper St. The southern end of the tower block is capped by a domed capsule with a staircase winding around it  part periscope, part whimsical minaret. The northern end, sporting three large, protruding glasshouses, is equally unique. Again, I found myself asking, "What are these things?"

The answers, of course, are rather prosaic. Both Pukehinau's airport control tower and Arlington's periscope sit atop elevator shafts. They are little more than architectural flourishes that house lift mechanisms. And Arlington's glasshouses? They're communal laundries (I should have guessed as much from all the drying clothes visible from the street).

This much I was able to discover after a bit of digging. But what was it like to live in Ian Athfield's Arlington One or Burren, Keen & Fagen's Pukehinau? (And yes, that's the same Burren and Keen responsible for Cuba Mall's bucket fountain.)

I was lucky enough to be shown around the Arlington complex by Marc de Gelder, development adviser at Wellington City Council, whose job it is to plan the first steps of refurbishment projects for the council's housing upgrade programme.

As we climbed the cold concrete stairs of Arlington One, Marc spoke of the compromises that inevitably occur when an architecturally designed housing project enters the construction phase. With Arlington, designed in 1964 and completed in 1976, look at the random cluster of four (cheaper than 24) balconies on the western side of the building, or the lack of finish on the lower floors on the eastern side. It's easy to get caught up in the current shape of a building, especially if you only see it from the outside, and forget that it could have been, and could still be, better.

Winston Churchill once said: "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." Others, as David Kernohan notes in the introduction to Wellington's New Buildings, put it more bluntly: "We get the buildings we deserve." But when it comes to public housing, the shapers and the shaped are never the same.

I think it's fantastic that we - taxpayers, ratepayers - have let some of our best architects go to town while designing public housing, but it's important we don't forget about these buildings or the people being shaped by them.

Although drawn to the periscope and the glasshouses, I'd gladly sacrifice these quirks if it means a warmer, drier, brighter Arlington One for those who call it home.

Craig Cliff is a writer and interested observer of quirky buildings. He writes a fortnightly column.

The Dominion Post