Design contest has big potential

Last updated 08:42 30/10/2012

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OPINION: A new architecture competition for a central city site is a positive move - but big challenges confront Christchurch on the future of housing, writes David Killick.

Dust swirls around the empty site opposite Latimer Square. Where budget travellers used to wend their way to Charlie B's Backpackers, now the only view is of giant cranes ripping down buildings in the red zone and piles of rubble. Graffiti adorns a corrugated iron fence.

"It's vile," said one of the few passing pedestrians, glancing towards the city. "I'm sick of this place."

Yet, as tall buildings come down, you are rewarded with new views: a glimpse of the Port Hills and even the Southern Alps. Street trees have resolutely burst into leaf, impervious to the chaos all around. Across the road, Latimer Square looks green and tranquil.

Watch this space: it will change fast.

The Christchurch City Council has teamed up with other organisations (including the Business Innovation and Employment Ministry, Ngai Tahu, and Cera/CCDU), to launch an international architecture competition to design a "new urban village" on the 1-hectare site.

The site abuts "The Frame", the green area that will define the new central city. In a radical departure, city design rules and regulations are being ditched and designers are being given free rein. They simply have to design at least 50 dwellings.

Judges will include British TV presenter and author Kevin McCloud, Christchurch architect Huia Reriti, and Christchurch landscape architect Di Lucas - who is herself planning a new mixed- use residential and commercial inner-city development. (Other judges are architect Stuart Gardyne, developer Martin Udale, engineer Kevin Simcock and youth representative Zea Harman).

The deadline for stage one of the competition is January 15. Three teams will then be short-listed and given $20,000 to develop their designs and a winner will be selected by next August. Construction is scheduled to start by December 2013.

At the project's launch, Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson described the competition as "an opportunity to create something visually innovative and exciting, showcasing modern and vibrant living in a modern and exciting city."

Perhaps wanting to forestall fears that intensive development, if not done properly, could result in slums of the future (the Government is particularly anxious to avoid any repeat of the leaky homes disaster), Williamson cautioned that quality would be essential. That could be tough. While the development will receive official government backing, it will still need to be commercially viable and "developers are tight bastards", one architect observed.

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Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker was effusive, praising the design competition as one of the most exciting projects for the city to date. He compared Christchurch's potential with urban development in Portland, Oregon.

Council officers I talked to, including sustainability adviser Tony Moore, were upbeat and genuinely excited at being involved in new ways of improving urban living for the future.

So is this optimism justified? I would argue yes, but the project raises significant questions on housing, development and design for the new Christchurch.

An international design competition is a brilliant idea. Already, more than 130 designers and architects have pre-registered. The competition is now listed on the World Architecture News website. Perhaps we could do with more competitions. Top of the list would be a new cathedral.

We still need more action on housing.

Housing is vital to the city's recovery. It is a far better use of taxpayers' money, in my view, than lavishing hundreds of millions of dollars on glitzy projects like a convention centre and a sports stadium - big-ticket items that could be funded instead by private enterprise.

The urban village concept is being seen as a way to get more people back into the city centre. That's a smart move. Otherwise the area will remain a wasteland.

What kinds of designs are we likely to see? Of course, new buildings must be safe and earthquake-resistant. People also want to see aesthetically pleasing, innovative architecture, and not bland, utilitarian slab-like monoliths. High-rises won't be popular, but efficient use of space is important. There is also a big potential to design green, energy-efficient and eco-friendly buildings.

Who will want to move into a new urban village? New Zealand's housing needs have changed radically since the 1950s. The nuclear family is not the only housing model. People marry later, have fewer children, and live longer. We need more housing for single people and couples - not just in the city but also throughout the region.

Despite this, we continue to build land-hungry suburban subdivisions in the same way, sprawling single- story family houses on big wide streets. Cars are the only way to reach businesses, shops, schools and entertainment facilities.

We have no unified plan for new housing in the greater Canterbury region. Developments are ad hoc. The Government and councils could do more to encourage alternative and innovative approaches to housing development.

In Europe and parts of North America, apartment living, co-housing and cluster communities are popular. For example, in Berlin - which has experienced a massive rebuilding programme since the fall of the wall in 1989 - new apartment buildings have sprung up all over. The city is easy to get around, thanks to a highly efficient public transport network and off-road cycle tracks.

Adelaide architects Paul Downton and Tim Horton, who visited Christchurch this year, outlined new projects in Australia. Architect Bill Dunster described new housing developments in Britain. His buildings are designed to last, and not be temporary structures, he said. The Viva Group in Christchurch has been working on alternative housing concepts.

Everyone wants to live in a caring community where they retain their independence while enjoying safe, attractive surroundings. Such houses should be flexible, accessible, and cater for all age groups.

Of course, new housing also has to be affordable. That is a massive hurdle for homeowners. With payouts for red zone properties in Christchurch averaging $300,000, and land prices often starting at $200,000, the maths simply do not stack up. There is also a huge need for social housing - decent affordable accommodation for the most vulnerable and poorest members of society.

Unfortunately, a jarring discrepancy exists between the bright happy pictures in the visuals in the plans for Christchurch and the depressing reality for residents still living in damaged battered homes (especially on TC3 land) with no timeframe for repairs or payouts.

We have seen no bold plan to help these people into new homes, just a vague assurance that "the market will decide".

Alternative housing is a possible design solution, although it is not enough - alternative financing is also required. Some commentators are sceptical that the urban village will succeed and that restrictive planning rules won't impact on new developments.

The challenges are formidable. One, relatively small inner-city site by itself will not do much. But it could be inspirational and lead to further such projects.

Perhaps, if it does succeed, a new urban village would combine the best of the old and the new: a return to a community atmosphere that has prevailed for centuries - together with the latest advances in building products and design.

Christchurch group the Viva Project is holding a workshop tonight to discuss the urban design competition (vivaproject.org.nz). Information: Jane Quigley - 0274 592 371.

David Killick edits the monthly At Home supplement for The Press.

- The Press

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