Born of a serendipitous coming together of able young architects and modernist ideas, the Christchurch School gifted its home city a set of bright and spacious houses built from concrete and timber. Now, as a new generation takes to suburbia for space, safety and a new life, we visit the homes that should shape their dreams.
“What came before them was pretty ordinary,” says graphic designer Matthew Arnold. He’s taking monocle through the residential-design style of the Christchurch School, a 1950s and 1960s New Zealand architecture movement about which he’s just co-published a book, I Never Met a Straight Line I Didn’t Like. “Back then, Christchurch streets were rows of older timber English- style workers’ cottages,” he says. “Then suddenly you would get one of these buildings with painted concrete-block walls and steep-sloped roofs, built back off the street. They were pretty alien.”
Alien in the nicest sense of the word, we might add. Here, on a remote island near the bottom of the Earth, in a city prone to violent earthquakes, a sunny design style that merged Scandinavian modernism with early UK brutalism captured Christchurch’s imagination. “I like to compare it to the ‘Seattle sound’, where the grunge music movement emerged in the early 1990s,” says Arnold of the style that defines the homes at the heart of his attractive photo-led title. “You basically had all these people with all this talent in a single place at the same time,” he says. “A style was established that was inspiring every young architect and they were all riffing off it and feeding off each other’s work.”
More than half a century later, many of these homes remain remarkably well maintained. This is particularly impressive considering they endured the horrific 2011 earthquake that damaged much of the city. The reason for the buildings’ sturdiness is their reliance on a simple, strong core construction material: steel-rod-enforced concrete blocks. Yet the concrete homes never feel cold or austere, says photographer Mary Gaudin, who co-published the book with Arnold. The reason, she notes, is the way that the cold material is offset with warmer features. When they were built, the exteriors were painted in a sun-reflective white, while timber tended to be deployed majestically inside to line the walls and large double-height ceilings.
B Jones by Ian Athfield, 1968
The Christchurch style was simple: concrete-block walls painted pure white; steeply pitched roofs with shaved eaves; deep-set windows; and tall chimneys. But the results were complex, sculptural and beautifully detailed homes.
“New Zealand didn’t have access to luxurious materials but we had incredible wood,” says Gaudin. “Today it’s impossible to build with these amazing native woods such as totara and rimu but back then you could – and they made these homes warm and inviting with an almost Japanese feel.”
The first Christchurch School homes were pioneered by architect Miles Warren, a Kiwi who had worked on daring social-housing projects for the London County Council in the UK in the 1950s. Although later dubbed “brutalism” – a term that Warren disagreed with – these concrete-infused developments created bright, airy and affordable living options for Londoners and showed the possibilities of building with a material that could be produced virtually anywhere, including New Zealand. With a penchant for the Scandinavian design that he had observed on his European travels, Warren returned to his native Christchurch in 1955 and his influences began to take shape across the city’s built environment.
“He created a notable house for his parents and began to convince a conservative city to build modern homes,” says Arnold, noting that Warren’s charming demeanour and his family’s social status in Christchurch boosted the appeal of his work. “The city was heading into both an economic and cultural boom, and then along came this well-mannered man from a good background who was convincing people to think differently about home design. Thankfully for Christchurch he was an incredible designer.” It wasn’t long before other young architects took Warren’s style and ran with it. A collective of such designers, which became the Christchurch School, began competing for who could forge the most creative homes that still honoured the simple construction methods.
PNG Blaxall by Griffiths & Moffat, 1967
The house reflects Peter Blaxall’s love of Japan, capturing that country’s spirit of planning via its ‘genkan’ entrance hall and rooms opening out to individual courtyards featuring water and planting.
ML Paynter by Minson, Henning-Hansen & Dines, 1970
Henning-Hansen emigrated from Denmark in the 1950s and as the younger partner in the firm took on the design of this house. He was a pioneer (along with Miles Warren and Peter Beaven) of the use of concrete-block construction for modern housing in New Zealand.
“One of Warren’s biggest rivals was Peter Beaven,” says Arnold, taking monocle through a remarkable set of Beaven- designed adjoined housing units. With their pitched roofs sloping in various directions, the small homes provide shady, generous outdoor rooms that offer privacy for tenants, while every unit has a real sense of architectural presence. “Peter hated being called a modernist and said that his work was starting off where classical architecture ended and modernism began,” says Arnold. “He loved the Englishman Edwin Lutyens and you see references to him in this building with the nutty English-barn-style roof profiles. But his idea to take these strange shapes and assemble them this way created something quite sculptural.”
The Beaven homes are favoured by Gaudin too, who shot them beautifully with a medium-format film camera and no extra lighting equipment. “The process was evocative for me,” she says of creating the book with Arnold. “When you’re a kid in Christchurch you don’t appreciate the architecture but when you’ve seen the world and then come back here you realise how remarkable these designs are.” She adds that today the Christchurch School homes are enjoyed in different ways by various types of people. Some families aren’t fussed about their residence’s story and simply appreciate their sunny rooms and lofty ceilings. Others are modernism purists who have kitted out their homes in a manner befitting the architect’s original intent.
RC Webb by Warren & Mahoney, 1963
Miles Warren designed four townhouses for Robert Webb, a farmer who wanted a base in town and some rental income to boot. These small dwellings were intended for “single ladies with limited means”. Miles designed for “a minimum of maintenance and upkeep – finishes chosen for economy, ease of maintenance and tenant resistance”.
G Steven by Beaven, Hunt & Associates, 1964
One of Beaven’s best residential works has an exciting and dynamic interior with dancing angles and framed views.
J Messervy by Allan Mitchener, 1964
The house uses the familiar materials of the Christchurch style yet has its own distinct personality and ideas.
One of these aficionados is Arnold himself, who owns a home by Miles Warren’s firm, Warren and Mahoney, replete with mid-century furniture from Danish design greats such as Børge Mogensen. He jokes that “good buildings get funny nicknames, like The Gherkin in London”, and says his home was dubbed “the toilet block” when built in the early 1960s due to its radical shape and use of industrial materials. Yet as a survivor of multiple earthquakes and various trends in residential design, it stands as the most beloved building on the street – one that’s testament to a remarkable moment in design history.
RC Ballantyne by Warren & Mahoney, 1973
For one of the city’s wealthiest couples, the Ballantyne house was a relatively modest affair. But there’s poetry in the details.