For a long time, inner-city living was a somewhat foreign concept in Ōtautahi Christchurch. The type of place that once slept from Monday to Thursday, few were drawn to live within its arterial Four Avenues. Following the 2011 earthquakes, though, the government devised a strategy to change all that. As part of the Central City Recovery Plan, they introduced the East Frame initiative, a scheme that aimed to repopulate and regenerate downtown’s eastern edge.
Contracting out something like 900 townhouses, new builds began to take shape at pace, and developers around the city followed suit. Now, more than a decade on, the central building boom continues and, for the most part, the influx of housing has been well received. The designs, on the other hand, are a different story. Locals have rallied against the apparent copy-and-paste approach of many developments, even creating petitions condemning their “ugly, cheap and characterless” aesthetics. Though some have made an appreciated push for diversification, too many fall into the disappointing category of “same-sameness”.
The buildings you see on these pages steer well clear of this monotony. The mixed-use development is comprised of four blocks, consisting of 14 townhouses and five street-facing commercial spaces. Arranged around a shared carpark, it employs an inventive use of scale that immediately sets it apart. “I was looking for some vertical undulation and some semi-symmetry to break up the horizontal line into different heights,” architect Marcus Stufkens of Stufkens + Chambers Architects explains. The step-like formation created by the various rooflines of the two- and three-storey blocks gives the residences unique proportions while creating space for views. Though initially, there were murmurs from the developers to push the buildings up to the approved four floors, Stufkens challenged them on the point and, as he says, “architecture prevailed”.
This domestic scale helped to minimise the carbon footprint of the buildings. Sustainability was a key narrative for the architects, and the developer was happy to comply – so long as they stayed on budget. Shallow concrete footings eliminated the need for an excessive piled foundation system and generated far less ground excavation or waste. Materials were generally sourced through local supply chains and locations, and it was fundamental that most had low embodied carbon. Take the bricks used in the three white buildings, for example – they’re all seconds. “When they were being laid, being seconds, they were all different colours and looked a bit wild, so we had a few people complaining,” says Stufkens. “Even an architect, who I won’t name, called the developer to convey his complaint.” Laid in an ad-hoc pattern, they’re coated with a stark-white, thick elastomeric paint with added grit for texture. The result sees the irregularity of the bricks cast ever-changing shadows across the buildings, adding fresh dimension. The fourth block is clad with a light clay brick which demarcates it from the rest – these townhouses are the most private and a little larger, with the added luxuries of an internal garage, generous roof terrace and courtyard.
The location has to be discussed. It sits on the cusp of the central city but is surrounded by green space. In front is a newly established park where a boardwalk wanders past a historic band rotunda down to Ōtakaro Avon River. Across the road is the beloved Margaret Mahy playground, while the PGC Building Memorial Lawn flanks it on the western side. It’s within easy walking distance of business and dining precincts, yet one step removed – an architectural interpretation of “the best of both worlds”. However, not everyone was immediately sold on its Manchester Street address – the area has a classically patchy inner-city reputation, so in place of proposed street-level verandahs, Stufkens designed steel planters. By all accounts, the fears have proved unfounded, and everyone’s getting along swell.
This riverbank location also meant contending with flood-plain levels. The foundations were elevated above street level to adhere to council requirements. You walk up and into them via a short set of stairs. “That played into our hands, though, as it gave those occupants a sense of privacy by lifting them out of view from passersby,” the architect explains.
Most remarkably for a commercial development, each townhouse was tailored to its occupants after being sold off the plans: owners made numerous changes, and the architects and developers were impressively receptive to their demands. An owner in the premium block, for instance, combined two side-by-side units into one generous home. Another added a lift, while an end unit owner wanted extra storage for surfboards, leading to a steel pop-out on one side of the building. “There were quite a few quirky buyer requests,” says Stufkens. “It was a lot of pain, but as a result, it’s about 90 percent owner-occupied.”
Riverbank Quarter demonstrates a sense of restraint not typical of its kind. It affords occupants the luxury of space, sunlight and a design-led home. The unique development injects fresh diversity into downtown Ōtautahi and is a timely reminder that we shouldn’t settle for simply rebuilding our city – we should strive to improve it.