Whimbrel - Structural eningeering and architecture
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Latimer Gardens

This was a competition entry for an urban village on a site the North end of Latimer Square. The proposal consists of three blocks of terrace houses, a block of terrace houses with shops beneath, an apartment building with shops on the ground floor facing Madras Street and a restaurant on the corner. The commercial parts face outwards, while the residential portion all opens onto a large tree-fringed courtyard lawn and shared garden. It was not placed.

An aerial view of the complex, showing five blocks of buildings (an apartment building and four blocks of terrace houses) forming a courtyard with a large lawn and trees.Aerial view of the complex from the north

The project as described in the competition entry

The competition brief calls for an urban village, implying not only a group of dwellings but the armature for a complete and distinct community. For a community to be more than just a number of people, they need to interact and not simply share an address line on their mail.

A community must have a focus and a place to interact. Traditionally this function was served by the village green. This space, often an open grassed area around which the village was built, was the site of children’s games, community festivities, public rituals, ceremonies, commerce and a vast array of day-to-day activities. It was a shared front yard for the community, but it was used for many things we now think of as back-yard activities, living as we do in suburban streets where the street is all too often not a community. The village green is in some ways analogous to the marae, though the rituals and traditions are different. It could perhaps be understood as a combination of the marae as formal meeting space and the less ceremonial and more private (to the community) space around which the village itself is focussed. The village green, like the marae, is the space that all members of and visitors to the community understand to be the physical locus of that community.

This design should be understood as a village of 51 dwellings grouped around a village green. All of the houses and apartments open onto the green, and have no other access. The green is a large level lawn, about 35 by 55 metres, with paths around the perimeter and a wide band of grass and gardens with large deciduous trees. The green is accessed by three pedestrian entrances, two as formal gateways through the blocks of houses, and one a less formal side entrance between two buildings. The eastern edge of the green (at the foot of the apartment building) is a community garden shared by all residents, but especially occupants of the apartment building without gardens of their own. It produces vegetables and herbs and has a few fruit trees, some espaliered against the base of the apartment building. A generous barbecue pavilion faces the edge of the lawn, backing onto the community garden.

A row of terrace houses with porches and dormers, and a taller gate-house in the middle. The open barbecue pavilion stands to the left.

The courtyard looking north to the Armagh Street gateway. The barbecue pavilion is to the left

The north, south and east sides of the green are enclosed by three blocks of terraced houses, while the west side of the green is enclosed by a taller building with apartments in the upper three floors accessed off the green, and shops facing out onto Madras Street at ground level.

The complex draws upon local traditional architectural forms and motifs. For the first hundred years of our city's history gothic was the primary mode of our civic architecture, our founding architects encouraged by the writings of Pugin and Ruskin.  This was not only our churches, but our incomparable Canterbury Provincial Buildings, the museum, the university, various colleges, the railway station, post offices, the hospital and many other commercial and institutional buildings. Some were carpenter gothic, some brick, and the most characteristic buildings of local Port Hills basalt and scoria, with the freestone elements in Port Hills trachyte or Oamaru limestone. Our forefathers built major public buildings in this manner well into the 1950s, and a very few have been built more recently still. The precise meaning of this architecture may have changed over time, but it still speaks strongly to us.

Our great modernists, Peter Beaven and in their earlier years Warren and Mahoney, clearly and openly drew upon our gothic heritage in their characteristic work. Modernism is no longer new and is no longer our only zeitgeist (if it ever was). Now that we have lost so much of our architectural heritage it is time to draw upon this design resource and remind ourselves that this place is still Christchurch.

This project draws upon many sources, including the Canterbury Provincial Buildings, the sorely missed former Normal School on the equivalent site on Cramner Square, as well as some of Ben Mountfort, Cecil Wood, and Miles Warren's work at Christs College, and some of the gracefully understated work of Richard Harmon. It is to be expected that the interiors of this complex will be altered overtime, but the primary structure and exterior shell is intended to be durable. By ignoring the whims of fashion, being dateable only by its techniques and materials, it is intended to be largely immune to going out of fashion. This urban village intends to be beautiful and likeable entirely on its own intrinsic merit.

The street side of the row of houses shown above. In the middle is a gothic pedestrian gate with gatehouse above framed by two cabbage trees. Hedges conceal the private gardens of the townhouses, their verandah roofs just visible above.

The north pedestrian gate. This is in a row of wooden terraced houses opening to the courtyard

The complex is intended to foster community. As everyone must passthrough the village green to get to their homes, people are encouraged to interact. Being open, away from traffic and well overlooked by 42 dwellings, the green is a safe place for children to play during the day, and for people to cross at night. The three entrances would have gates with card access, closed after dark. The community garden is a space for further interaction, and the barbecue pavilion is another community focus. Children and a large lawn always results in impromptu games.

With the parking out of sight underground, the complex would not disadvantage cyclists and pedestrians, and in any case the site is an easy walk into town. Bicycle sheds opening onto the green are provided in the base of the apartment building, backing onto the Madras street shops. Shared parking is another opportunity for people to interact and being undercover prevents vehicles from deteriorating. The dwellings consist of 30 semi-detached houses of 80 to 200 square metres and varying specifications, and an apartment building with 21 flats varying from 44 square metre studios to 140 square metre three-bedroom apartments. The houses have small private gardens, though the apartment dwellers must share the green. Four of the houses come with a shop underneath fronting onto Madras Street. The shops under the apartment building are accessed only off Madras Street, though they may well be owned or leased by village residents. The octagonal restaurant is also accessed only off Madras Street, and as much as anything serves to give back to the wider community, working as the pivot and visual focus of a major landmark (the Gloucester and Madras Street fronts of the complex), providing a focus for this part of the city.

The northwest corner of the complex, with a row of four shops with houses above on the corner (gothic arches to the shops and rows of bay-windows and casement under deep gables

The corner facing Madras and Armagh Streets. The corner building is four townhouses with shops

This particular site has long marked a boundary, with the central city to the west of it and inner-city housing to the east. The Charlie B's backpackers building marked the transition, an overtly commercial building on the residential side of the street, facing the taller office buildings on the other side. Behind it was a mixture of old houses and apartment complexes, a dense inner suburbia. Now the site faces the frame, soon to be a wide belt of parkland. The Madras Street front of the complex therefore needs to be able to comfortably face a park or a commercial street, it also needs to help define an important public green space, hence the restaurant and south block of the complex serving as a dignified, ageless and friendly backdrop to Latimer Square.

The complex as seen from the southwest. On the corner is an octagonal gothic restaurant building with traceried windows and a cupola atop a tall pyramidal roof. To the left is the apartment building mentioned above, and to the right is a row of substantial gothic terrace houses, with buttresses and dormers, and a gatehouse in the middle.

The corner facing Madras and Gloucester Streets. The octagonal corner building is a restaurant

Macon Limited trading as Whimbrel structural engineering and architecture