Rules don't define quality architecture

DREAM OR REALITY?: A thriving inner-city neighbourhood is displayed in an artist's impression from the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan - A Liveable City.
DREAM OR REALITY?: A thriving inner-city neighbourhood is displayed in an artist's impression from the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan - A Liveable City.

What quality of architecture will we end up with in Christchurch? And who decides what quality means? Those questions are fundamental to the future shape of our city.

Other questions are equally important: Do planners and zoning regulations help or harm the city? Will they enhance or detract from its appearance and the way it functions? Do we need more or less regulation and control?

There are no easy answers, but we should care. Some major changes are proposed for the inner city as part of the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan - A Liveable City, prepared by Cera and the Central Christchurch Development Unit (CCDU). Public submissions will close on August 13.

Normally it would be solely the Christchurch City Council's responsibility to oversee planning changes, but of course our city is far from normal.

Main changes for the current Living 4 (high-density inner-city) zone include:

- No need for urban design assessments for medium density residential developments in the central city living zone;

- Zero parking requirements for residential developments;

- A standard 14-metre height limit for central city residential zones;

- Removal of Special Amenity Areas (SAMs) for areas identified as having special character.

These changes are concerning planners and architects, but what will they mean for the public?

The new plan may produce positive developments in central Christchurch; however, architects and designers must have more, not less, input. If they don't, the city may end up looking messier than ever - despite what the rules and regulations say.

Full of beautiful pictures, the first part of the plan impresses. "The centre of Christchurch will be a highly desirable place to live for people who seek an urban lifestyle," it says.

"Quality housing of different sizes and types will be home to thriving communities that are engaged with the life of the central city."

Good stuff. Let's agree on what we do want: harmonious, mixed neighbourhoods. Affordable housing. Attractive amenities that are within easy reach. Relaxing outdoor spaces. We need to build communities that are safe and appealing for all age groups.

We don't want ugly buildings and surroundings, wasted space, and lost opportunities.

But will the rules achieve these aims?

We tend to rely on rules and regulations too much. I think it is good to relax them somewhat. Too many nitpicky rules can stifle architectural creativity and prevent imaginative designs from going ahead.

Zero lot boundaries, in which you can build right up to the boundary, can be good. A garage wall, for example, can form part of the landscaping plan for a next-door property, saving space and avoiding the need for that ridiculous metre of wasted space between properties.

However, rules are also intended to prevent bad developments; for example, one house overshadowing another, or being able to look directly into a neighbour's window.

Sometimes, bad developments occur despite planning and zoning rules. Some of the worst are ugly block-like warehouses occupying prime sites with first-class views.

Removing strict car parking requirements is a good idea. Not everybody living in the city needs or wants several car parks. There is too much emphasis on cars in Christchurch. The alternative, of course, is better public transport and off-road cycle lanes.

Are height restrictions good or bad? A maximum 14 metres means about three to four storeys. The reason is not geo-technical but aesthetic. Some architects believe an occasional high-rise could relieve monotony. Christchurch has no real high-rise apartment buildings any more anyway, and six or seven storeys is not that high.

On the other hand, more harmonious architecture can be appealing: buildings that look similar if not identical, rather than being visually jarring. There is a reason why people love pictures of European villages; they enhance, rather than detract from the natural landscape.

Getting rid of special amenity areas is controversial, but change caused by the earthquakes has been so colossal, they are now an anachronism.

Some inner-city developers have publicly criticised the Urban Design Panel. It appears they hate having their ideas questioned and just want to push ahead. It's their money after all. Yes, but once a development is in concrete, it's too late to change it; the public will have to put up with it for decades.

The Urban Design Panel, which includes a mix of architects, landscape architects, planning experts, and a valuer, gives developers the opportunity to have their plans critiqued and improved by experts - free.

Perhaps a key step to creating a more attractive neighbourhood is to identify the main elements: aesthetics, heritage and context, efficient use of space, good connections, consideration of the natural environment, and energy use, to name just a few.

Creating attractive architecture depends more on an artist's eye than a computer program or a rulebook.

The Press