The nation's state

AIMIE CRONIN
Last updated 14:51 17/03/2014
State housing
Mark Taylor/Fairfax NZ

HUMBLE IS GOOD: Alan Deare in front of his ex-state house in Hayes Paddock.

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Alan Deare moved to Hayes Paddock seven years ago because he liked the vibe. The tree-lined streets, the community feel, the connection and proximity to our river, "the psychic space away from suburbia".

It connected with his memories of kids in the '70s "just roaming round", so he moved there to hone in on the neighbourliness and the nostalgia and he's happy.

He got to know the neighbourhood a bit because a friend lived there in the '90s. Back then, his car was broken into and a friend of his was mugged for his jacket - "It was a rougher area then." But that didn't stop him from seeing himself planted there. Now there's a growing number of creatives in the area and its name is on the up.

Deare is a graphic designer who works out of a studio at the back of his state house. He lives there with his wife, Katie, who has a yoga business in Hamilton East. His son once stayed there, too, but has since moved to Wellington to follow a music career. The Deare house features in a book released this month, Beyond the State. It looks into the history behind New Zealand's state houses and the ways people are living in them today. Deare also designed the book.

It's a gem of an addition to the coffee table for anyone with a interest in state houses and the layout is impressive. Deare worked the first section based on the elevations of a floor plan, because the houses were designed on grids.

"The pictures are quite contained, so it's like looking at the house objectively - seeing the complete house - where the back section breaks off grid and is less constrained, so it's like you've moved into the house and are looking closer at detail."

When the authors came to him about having his own house photographed, he was surprised.

He didn't think his house was particularly noteworthy. He wrote to the author and said, It's pretty humble. She wrote back and said, Humble is good.

"I thought the houses in the book were going to be Auckland ones with hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on them, but the mix has made it really special."

Deare points to one of his favourite spreads in the book, about a 97-year old blind man, Jack Shortt, who has lived in the same brick cottage in Savage Crescent, Palmerston North, since the mid 1950s. The place is the image of what it would have been back then: Axminster carpet (still in great nick), an original 1940s art deco wall

lamp and bakelite switch, wooden box pelmets, original light fittings and doors, a telephone nook, tiny rooms, a retro gas heater fitted into the fireplace by the family when gas arrived in the street. Mr Shortt remembers his pride in owning the house and living in the area:

"We respected what we had. We always swept the footpaths and road gutters of leaves; we scrubbed the front and back steps every week. Oddly, some people would say, Oh, you live in a state house? But then they would want to come and see what we'd got and then they would change their minds."

Today, state houses are back in fashion and, as the book highlights, some have remained largely untouched while others are part of more modern add-ons and structures.

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Hamilton heritage consultant Ann McEwan says it's no surprise state houses have become sought after. Their brand and identity are centred on the idea of community and carefully designed houses with practical considerations.

"Thought went into hours of sunlight in winter, how to have practical kitchens so you could look out over parks or yards and see your kids playing. They set the benchmark for post-war housing in New Zealand - they weren't just whipped up willy-nilly."

Original state houses are full of small rooms. You would shut the door on the kitchen, have dinner in the dining area, then proceed to the lounge. There was a room for mum and dad, a room for the boy children and a room for the girl children. Show homes in the late 1950s with combined living areas were considered radical in their day. Beyond the State illustrates what can become of state houses with the application of modern design that promotes open spaces.

McEwan points to the concept of architectural determinism when examining areas like Hayes Paddock: the idea that one creates environments that determine behaviour, that living somewhere nice makes us nicer people. She says that though Hayes Paddock was once the night soil dump, it was always going to be a desirable area because of its proximity to the river and Hamilton East. When planning state housing areas, the idea was that people would be close to amenities like schools, shops, kindys, so they had all the things they needed to start family life as part of a close-knit neighbourhood.

To McEwan, one of the most important things about protecting areas like Hayes Paddock (which now has the heritage stamp) is making sure that planning rules and property values don't get so inflated that they dislocate and disenfrachise the people for whom they were built. There's a danger that in the gentrification of suburbs, lower socioeconomic groups will be shunted to areas where they live in much poorer quality housing, which sit on sections filled with more poor quality houses. Only a small number of Hayes Paddock properties are owned by Housing New Zealand today.

"When we first moved here in 2006," Alan Deare says in Beyond the State, "it reminded me of old New Zealand. It had an intriguing mix of people. It wasn't homogenised. It wasn't defined by your income.

"Maybe to some extent that's changing now."

- Waikato

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