Architects Tim Hay and Jeff Fearon brought together an award-winning team to design the Union Green development. Picture / Supplied.

Rise Up

Leading architects are finding a secluded balance when it comes to apartment living

Do you feel it? A change is coming. The skyline is shifting, along with attitudes. On the ridge of Great North Rd in Grey Lynn, the blocks are rising and, it has to be said, so are some hackles. Yet apartments per se are not the enemy of the emerging urban fabric.

Badly designed and built ones are. Tiny ticky-tacky boxes have tagged Auckland city as a zone where only foreign students would want to reside, but those days are numbered: the Zeitgeist is that apartment living is hot to trot.

New Zealand-born, UK-trained interior designer Camilla Temple has lived and worked in Hong Kong for the past four years. Her view of operating in a city where buildings are concentrated on 20 per cent of the land is that you’ve got to dive in.

Get among it. She acknowledges that historical context lends a special quality to the streetscape. “I love that the neighbourhoods contain high-end shops next to old medicine traders, appliance repairers and coffin stores. It’s a wonderful mix.”

Densification is not anathema to the good-lifestyle cause, but ensuring adequate amenities (schools, parks, doctors, shops) while retaining some textural character amid all that “new” accommodation is crucial.

Union St is on the fringe of the Victoria Quarter, a precinct once dominated by industrial activity where factories and taverns operated side by side. Today, that area is designated a “brownfield” zone — an enviable city-fringe location ripe for development.

When Fearon Hay Architects was approached to act as master planners for the Union Green development, the brief was to set a precedent for sophisticated urban living. They weren’t asked for a set of apartments to maximise the footprint on the land; they were required to shape a residential community.

To foster this lofty aim, a mix of terrace homes and apartments were devised, connected by laneways and set around parkland — termed “The Green” — where it is envisioned residents will relax and interact.

Architect Tim Hay believes “Union Green will alter the way we view apartment and terrace housing in New Zealand”.

By bringing an award-winning team of planners, architects, interior designers and landscape designers together from the outset, the developers hope to grow a whole new community amid the urban grit. Thirty-year-old jacarandas will be brought in to populate “The Green” and, in the private gardens of the terrace homes, 5m karaka trees will be focal points.

There’ll be large vertical living walls in communal spaces and a winter garden planned at the base of the tower block (named “The Rise”) will be planted with 50-year-old exotics. On every balcony will be planter boxes where native grasses will bring bands of greenery.

Union Green seems to team the best of the old (garden-style suburbia) with the best of the new (a cutting-edge design with generous proportions) but will this strategy key into the hearts and minds of the now generation?

Blair Johnston, principal and executive director of Warren and Mahoney Architects, argues that contrary to being committed to the quarter-acre paradise, these days many people want to live in cities. The dream has morphed into one where they can ditch the car in favour of the freedom that walking and cycling to work and local shops can bring.

Kiwis have travelled and seen city living like it should be — and they want those benefits here and now. “It’s not anecdotal, it’s evidential; New Zealand has one of the most highly urbanised populations in the world. People are continuing to move to Auckland in rapid numbers. We need to plan for this, not react to it.”

Part of the solution is designing places such as Union Green in locations within coo’ee of the city — yet not everyone wants to live that close to downtown. There are neighbourhoods everywhere that can accommodate apartment-style developments and be richer for it.

In Stonefields in Mt Wellington, Warren and Mahoney’s Altera complex is a low-rise, five-storey development of 44 apartments. They have all sold. One important consideration in tempting Kiwis into apartments is to balance a sense of seclusion with the social side of multi-unit living.

“For New Zealanders, our private space is private. In close living environments, it’s important we don’t feel too exposed, that we’re not confronted by a wall of people,” says Johnston. To address this at Altera, multiple points of street access were included in the design.

Smaller groups of tenants can get to their apartments via their own lifts and stairs, rather than at a single entry. This simple change means a psychological shift: you’re one of 10, not 50. Johnston: “By creating small communities within the building, occupants feel as though they live in an individual, personalised home — not an anonymous housing block.”

Although it’s important to encourage discussion about what makes a good individual apartment, and the form the complexes of the future should take, equal focus should be given to the residual spaces these developments create.

“In great cities like London and Paris, you seldom remember individual buildings — you remember streets and parks, or drinking coffee at a cafe in the dappled shade of established trees. That is how community is created; through clever master planning of the entire city,” says Johnston.

Temple, who was a guest presenter at the Union Green Speaker Series — a schedule of design-led talks in April and May to launch the development — believes the future for Auckland is bright. While here, she picked up a couple of local design projects and the upshot is she’s decided to give up her apartment in the Sheung Wan district of Hong Kong and decamp back to her home town.

For Temple, the timing is right. She’s part of the generation of urban professionals who like the stylish solution developments such as Union Green offer. “Auckland is becoming a mature, cosmopolitan world city that people want to be in,” she says.

Although she’s not the traditional empty nester looking for a lock-up-and-leave pad, the day-to-day ease of apartment living has significant appeal. “I think the rise of social media has intensified the pressure [on my generation] to succeed. To me, being in an apartment is easier. I can de-clutter and live more simply, then step out of my front door and walk to work.”

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