Design Review: Volume 4, Issue 2 (September-May 1951-52)
Here and There
Here and There
I sometimes envy the ignorant. To know too much of what goes on can be very trying. But some of the mistakes being committed every day by people who are paid to watch over public affairs are so serious, and to me, at least, so obvious, that it is a judgment on ourselves that more voices are not raised in protest or warning. One matter that has been hammered home to us over the last twenty years is the danger of ribbon development along our main highways. We are all well enough aware, I should have thought, of the problems ribbon development cause—serious traffic dangers and delays, bad living conditions with noise, smell, fumes and vibration from passing traffic, overextended services, and visual horrors ending in the rape of the countryside. Yet ribbon development is taking place to-day at a greater rate than ever before.
In boroughs and cities the local bodies have adequate powers under the Town Planning Act, seldom effectively used. But in the country all subdivisions must be approved by the Chief Government Surveyor, who pays little regard to planning principles—not that one can altogether blame him, for jurisdiction in planning matters should be the responsibility of town-planners and not surveyors. The only standards that seem to matter are that sections have a 50-foot frontage and that the width of streets should conform to the surveyor's yardstick of 66 feet. But what is serious is that in the bigger cities the greatest and most haphazard growth is taking place on the outskirts, under the control of counties. Though the County Councils may often be aware of the folly of subdividing along the main highways, they cannot always prevent the approval of applications. Outside Wellington there is the extraordinary case of the Ministry of Works spending a huge sum on a four-lane non-access motorway out of the city as far as Porirua and then taking no precautions to protect the road from then on. What has now happened is that suburban sections have been cut up along the main highway between Plimmerton and Pukerua Bay. Is there nothing anyone can do to stop such stupidity? For in ten years there will be a need to build another highway at great cost to by-pass the string of houses that will grow up along the present road.
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Fewer Houses This Year?
I expect there will be a falling-off this year in the national house-production figures. The collapse of the State housing programme after the change of Government will be fully felt this year for the first time. Last year's figures included houses contracted for under the previous Government. Costs are now so great that the middle-income man, who does the bulk of house-building, is building fewer, and the higher-income man is building more. One can see evidence of this in the larger proportion of semi-luxury houses now under construction. The present credit shortage is also beginning to have its effect. A lot of people who were intending to build just cannot raise the money.
This will result in two things—an apparent easing of the housing shortage and the speeding-up of commercial building. The excessive building costs are forcing families to share accommodation for economic reasons rather than for a lack of room. This in itself is a symptom of depression, and the reason why second-hand houses are stabilising in price.
It is a little easier to have commercial and industrial work constructed. High prices have forced abandonment of some schemes even after permits have been obtained, and contractors are favouring this type of work in preference to housing, as worries are fewer and profits safer.
The most serious aspect of the housing situation is the plight of the young family and of the old people. The need for cheap mass-produced housing is urgent. The Government has been hoping that the importation of prefabricated houses from overseas would be the answer. But these hopes were doomed to failure. Shipping and re-erection costs are higher than the cost of the original house.
More About Housing Costs
The actual cost of building a house in a new suburb is only part of the real cost. Beside the house itself there are many other factors adding to the cost of construction which we overlook. Reading costs, kerbing and channelling, sealing, provision of water, electricity, telephone, sewerage and storm-water disposal, cost of land, loss of farming production, administrative costs and travelling expenses to and from the city are enough almost to double the real cost. This gets us back to the fundamental question as to whether we are not building too many single houses at too low a density, especially in the larger centres, and not enough flats. Now no one ever suggested that we all live in flats. And it is no good saying that you just don't like flats. There is a large proportion of the urban population who would be suitably accommodated in either tall blocks, terrace houses or maisonettes, and who would prefer them.
If we continue to build single houses one by one in endless repetition over the ever-diminishing landscape of our towns, we shall he landing ourselves in a worse mess every day. The housing shortage is still acute, which means too many people are living in sub-standard conditions and that the cost per house is far too high. In the centres of the large cities there should be a programme of slum clearance and redevelopment by high-density housing and planned communities as extensions of existing towns. If this were coupled with active building research, we would be on the right road. The hopeless condition we are now in should be enough to convince anyone of the need for a complete change of policy.
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Geoffrey Nees has drawn for us, as you see on p. 29, the evolution of the radio cabinet. Doesn't it fill you with nostalgia? I feel sure that the picturesque speaker fashioned after a gigantic sea shell would still adorn many a living-room. The sculpturesque jazz and Gothic Revival of the two centre ones, though now out of date, must still win many admirers. But I am sure no modern cabinet would be a more popular model than the lower one. Here we have all the features for good sales—streamlining, sleekness, and a pair of nice little wings.
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The recent Court proceedings against the Auckland artist Knight Turner disgusted me as much as I hope it disgusted others. A conviction—though in this case the fine was light—is a serious thing for an artist. This conviction has established painting by an artist on a Sunday as Sunday trading, and consequently an offence. A professional painter may not sit in the park on Sunday and he seen painting—in fact, perhaps he may not even paint in his studio observed, though it might be permissible if he pulls down the blinds. And will not this decision affect the Art Galleries, which are open on Sundays and not only charge for admission but actually sell pictures. The implications are alarming. But what the decision indicates is that the hidebound spirit of Victorianism is still ascendant in New Zealand. I doubt whether such a Court decision has been possible in England in the last fifty years.
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The Government's election promise to import 3000 prefabricated houses has not been as easy to fulfil as it seemed. Of the twenty six firms who tendered, none were suitable. The recent order for a thousand houses from an English firm will be a test batch. They are not really prefabs, as they will be completely knocked down. They would be better described as “pre-cut”. Each piece of timber will be brought out separately, ready for nailing.page 29
Architects and Architects
If you were going to build a house, would you go to an architect? Probably not, for only about one person in twenty does. Most people think they can do as well as an architect, and that his fees are too high anyway. Go into any bookshop and you will see a large range of plan books—all equally bad—which sell only too readily. Over these cooked-up horrors, some less horrible than others, young married people pore in the evenings, thinking of the house they wish to build and whether to have the one with the sunroom off the bedroom or the one with the lantern over the front door. Until about ten years ago they probably achieved about as good a result this way as by going to some of the established architects. But to-day you can do much better. You can now choose from a number of capable younger architects who can not only give you a much more attractive and convenient house than can be found in any plan book, but a cheaper one as well.
There is ample evidence of this. Over the last ten years or so there has been an increasing number of better-designed or what you might call “contemporary” houses. The most recognisable of these is the “magpie” house of creosote and tar with white facings and overhanging flat roof, originally popular with the more advanced architects, but now copied at random by others. For the leading house-architects this phase is passing. and a more developed style is becoming evident.
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The Centre Elects New Officers
At the annual general meeting of the Architectural Centre, Mr. D. G. Porter was re-elected as President. Mr. Martin Hill is now Honorary Secretary, Mr. W. M. Bradshaw Honorary Treasurer, and Messrs. H. J. B. Coe, F. H. Newman, A. L. Treadwell and W. W. Wilson were elected to the Council. Mr. George Gabites, as editor of Design Review, is an ex-officio member of the Council.