A young architect couple plays with colour and volume to create a home for themselves, and one to rent

Central Planning

Central Planning

After the earthquakes, Christchurch-based artist Tony de Lautour’s paintings changed markedly. His colours became brighter and bolder, and he took a turn to the abstract, building up angular forms into compositions that blur boundaries –– sometimes letters seem to appear, while other canvases look like abstracted cityscapes viewed from above. Shapes totter and teeter. Red lines seem sometimes to read as the red tape that hindered reconstruction post-earthquake. And in one significant painting, titled (ironically) ‘Central Planning’, forms of colour are interlocked together against a plywood ground, with a rectangular hole cut out of the middle of the canvas. 

The hole could represent the loss of Christchurch’s city centre, cut out of the fabric of the city. Or it could represent the seeming absence of government planning that many believed was so desperately needed in the city. Maybe it represents both at once. But recently, the painting has seemed to represent the vibrant small-scale development that has gone on in the city centre’s surrounding suburbs. It seems to say that the most successful development happens around and in spite of central planning, not because of it.

Case in point are these two 100-square-metre townhouses built at the back of an existing bungalow. Where most might consider a lean-to extension into the back garden, or a single-dwelling subdivision at most, Bull O’Sullivan’s Paul Anselmi and partner Maria Chen (an architect at Athfield Architects’ Christchurch office) have fitted two dwellings. Each has two bedrooms, a garage, a covered outdoor area, a small garden and a third bedroom or study. What’s more remarkable is that the townhouses are positively generous, with a double-height, light-filled atrium above the dining area. 

Anselmi and Chen were living overseas when the earthquakes struck, but moved back shortly after. “The bungalow was in a poor state when I first stumbled upon it in 2014,” says Chen. “The tenants had lots of belongings, it was difficult to even see the floor. Most open-home goers did a U-turn after entering; I thought the house had lots of opportunities. The location was perfect for me as I wanted to live close enough to bike to work in the central city.” At the time, zoning regulations allowed one unit to be built on the rear of the section, but regulations later changed and they gained permission to build two townhouses. “As the units were intended to be rented, we needed them to be practical and flexible for tenants,” says Anselmi. “But at the same time wanted them to feel individual and domestic so they would enjoy the spaces and never want to leave”.

The driveway to the townhouses is to the right of the bungalow, which is rented. Straight ahead is the garage of the rear home, which Anselmi and Chen occupy, while a left-hand turn half-way down the drive leads to the second, which is also rented. Each house is entered via a private, covered outdoor area (a sunny spot during the day). Turn right after entering the front door and you come into the lofty double-height dining area, with the kitchen on the right and living area on the left. A staircase leads up to two bedrooms and a decent-sized bathroom, while the third bedroom/study is downstairs off the entry corridor. Spaces are tight, but never poky. Where these townhouses really sing is with colour and light, which transform them into spaces far more than their back-section infill status might suggest. Light, first of all: lots of it, thanks to the use of a multi-layer polycarbonate in the double-height atrium and as the garage door. Irregular, staggered pine framing supports the opaque polycarbonate, which floods the space with an even light and ensures privacy from neighbours (plus greater insulation than glass). 

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“While budget dictated simple spaces and materials, we made a conscious effort to push a few key materials that would make the project special,” says Anselmi, and the polycarbonate delivers, lighting up the houses like lanterns at night. Meanwhile, a skylight above the stairs brings light into what would otherwise be the darkest part of the townhouse, and allows glimpses of trees and the Port Hills.

Then colour: also lots of it, but more importantly, a confident use of it that’s all too rarely seen. “We knew we didn’t want white walls as it would have been oppressive in the small spaces,” says Anselmi. “Choosing colour is all about experimenting. We went through many samples on the walls, much to the annoyance of the plasterer, and ended up with 18 colours in each unit.” This isn’t just a feature wall in the living room, but a layering of colour and texture to produce an effect not too dissimilar to a de Lautour painting such as ‘Central Planning’. 

The front door is a cheerful yellow. The double-height wall is a Mediterranean blue. The yellow carries through to the kitchen island, while the garage interior is painted orange. A cabbage-tree green follows the staircase and landing. And then the bedrooms: that sea blue again, on one wall, with a light modernist pastel blue on the other. Meanwhile, the whole dwelling is given texture with Portuguese cork for the common floors and staircase, while the ply lining the staircase walls is “simple cheap pine”, says Anselmi. The effect is anything but simple or cheap – it’s vibrant and confident, turning the houses into a microcosm of the bold experimentation going on across post-quake Christchurch. 

This is one architect-couple’s contribution to New Zealand’s housing stock, done in a mindful and generous way. “It was important that the design didn’t just serve me and Paul, but a wider demographic of people who live in Christchurch,” says Chen. Anselmi echoes this generous spirit, pointing to one of the project’s objectives as providing a “high quality of space that supports wellbeing and positive social relationships”. 

Together, they show that what’s good for one’s own housing prospects can also be generous to tenants, neighbours and the city. Which leads us back to central planning and government-sponsored house building. Who needs it, one half wonders, when it’s the spaces and shapes that spring up around the centre that give a painting or a city all its life? 

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1. Entrance
2. Study/Bedroom
3. WC
4. Living
5. Kitchen
6. Dining
7. Garage
8. Bedroom
9. Bathroom

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