Strange how when you take a look at an issue it suddenly seems to pop up elsewhere. Just a few days after I wrote “Labels are for jars not people” I read that architect Russel Walden has described me and my neighbours as “middle- class conformist rednecks” (Oh, Futuna Your Weekend March 12 2011) because we live in Futuna Close. So Walden labels us without knowing anything about us (other than where we live).
Some background: The area was once a Catholic retreat and includes the Futuna chapel, awarded a gold medal from the New Zealand Institute of Architects. The retreat was sold to a developer who was apparently going to demolish the chapel until fortunately it was listed as a heritage building. Residents of Futuna Close can enjoy the beauty of the chapel every time we look out a window, step onto a deck or drive past it. We, and others are privileged to benefit from the restoration of the chapel.
The author of the article, Diana Dekker, writes “Futuna sits, still needing care, in the architecturally claustrophobic landscape of as many townhouses as could be squashed onto the site. The residents love them. Some architects hate them.” (My emphasis) Presumably some don’t hate them.
There are at least three issues here. One shows yet again that labels are based on ignorance, intolerance and prejudice, and are used to forcefully present a narrow minded opinion as fact. Another issue is that the article is a biased piece of reporting that makes no attempt to explore any views other than the one the writer has. The article was published to co-incide with the chapel’s 50th anniversary so perhaps the writer thought that something contentious might help promote it? No excuse for poor journalism. She overlooks the controversy over a design that led to leaking and high maintenance costs, one of the reasons the Catholic church sold it. Which leads to the third issue, the credibility of some architects who value style over substance.
In case you’re wondering, that like any sensible middle class conformist, I worry about property values, I don’t. For the first time I’ve found a home I like living in and selling isn’t on my to do list. The development has opened the whole area so that the public can appreciate the chapel from the street and can walk around the outside of it. Previously only the tip of the chapel roof could be seen from the street and I doubt that many people dared to walk into the retreat to see any more. Many people didn’t know the chapel existed until the area was developed. The more people come to see Futuna, the more the development can be appreciated for the remarkable achievement of use of space, and compatibility with its environment. There is access to our private native bush that provides a beautiful backdrop to the town houses which in turn blend in with the surroundings. Giant rimu stand in gardens breaking up the potential blandness of roads that give access to houses. Ferns, cabbage trees and other plants have been preserved and break up the lines of the houses and help create open vistas. The natural stream running through Futuna is delightful. The developer employed a gardener who over several years built a nursery of mostly native plants to ultimately surround each set of townhouses, and to add to the established areas of bush. He was an interesting character who planted according to the phases of the moon and was absolutely committed, not to landscaping, but to creating something natural. The bush and mature trees conceal an astonishing sixty six town houses. Passers-by see maybe a dozen or so, visitors see a few more, but nobody comes close to realising how successfully the developer designed the layout, tricking the eye by grouping some designs in three or so, and using different designs that blend together and complement the physical surroundings.
I’ve never seen a development like this anywhere in New Zealand. Perhaps because it is unique it has attracted all sorts. Some are middle class, if that means having average status, education, tastes and income. Some may be conformist, although if conformist means conforming to accepted behaviour or established behaviour, the very act of living somewhere so unique might suggest not. There have been a few rednecks here, if redneck means narrow, prejudiced, reactionary. They haven’t lasted long because to live in this sort of environment requires a spirit of co-operation, an ability to compromise, empathy and an ability to share common spaces. I don’t know what middle class is in New Zealand but I live opposite a truck driver, teacher, antiques dealer, sales manager, and along from a judge, and down from a partner in a law firm, and a group of young lifeguards who work at the local swimming pool. Behind me lives an artist who, with her husband, raised twelve foster children as well as their own three children. Our neighbours include a family made up of grandmother, mother, teenage son and niece; another made up of a couple, the wife’s daughter and her son; some are older people living on their own, or, like us, couples; there are teenagers, babies, young children; there are Chinese, Dutch, Sri Lankan, English, Australian, American, Korean, Maori and other ethnicities. Our delightful neighbour and his flamboyant friends would laugh at being described as conformists.
The label “middle- class conformist rednecks” is intended as an insult and likely grounded in Walden’s anger that his vision is not shared by others. The label demonstrates his ignorance of how people might choose to live rather than be told, his intolerance of the views of others, and prejudice that only architects can design living spaces.
I’d like people to see for themselves that it isn’t an “…architecturally claustrophobic landscape of as many townhouses as could be squashed onto the site.” It’s a good example of a builder sensitively developing a unique physical environment within the constraints of financial viability and providing affordable attractive housing. As well as blending the houses into their environment the builder has cleverly maximised the spaces within each house so that some have as many as four bedrooms and two bathrooms. And here’s the real rub – Futuna Close was developed by a builder who worked with engineers and others to build stylish and functional homes.
Too often architects place style above functionality and the results can be catastrophic for the owners. Take “leaky homes” for which architects who designed them blame builders and materials, leaving ratepayers and taxpayers to pick up the bill for the architects disregard for function. Monolithic cladding, recessed windows, roofs with narrow or no eaves, solid balustrades, complex roof design and envelope shapes where roofs frequently intersect with walls on upper floors, enclosed or concealed gutters are all design features introduced by architects with total disregard for our weather and the environment in which we live.
Futuna chapel was designed by architect John Scott who also designed other churches. The chapel leaks; it’s always leaked. So have the other churches. The chapel has internal gutters. The most striking feature of the chapel are the stained glass “windows” (designed by an artist) which are actually plastic and have faded over time and will continue to fade. It seems to me that a lot of architectural design in New Zealand is for the immediate gratification of the architect with little regard for longevity. Materials rot, or fade, the architects deny responsibility.
Contrast that with a builder who has for years built solid, lasting homes that function well for the people living in them, and who consults experts like engineers, to make sure that drainage and roading will work effectively.
Mr Walden can throw a tantrum and call us names but that won’t change who we are, the popularity of the development, or that others can appreciate the beauty of the chapel in its new environment, even if he can’t.