Despite the exodus of the middle class to the suburbs in the early 1900s, there were still some wealthier people who preferred to live within walking distance of city workplaces and amenities. In the 1910s, developers responded to this market by building blocks of flats. Until then, they had avoided building them because of their association with the squalid tenements of European cities. Even terraced housing had been treated with suspicion, and very little of it was built. The ideal New Zealand home had long been a single dwelling on its own section.
The trend towards suburban living was challenged by two Auckland businessmen, William Stanton and Ernest Potter, who in 1914 built New Zealand’s first block of flats – Courtville, in Parliament St. With its bay windows and long street-front balconies it resembled a contemporary Viennese block. At the same time another developer built two semi-detached, three-storey London-like town houses (since demolished) in nearby Greys Ave. Both buildings epitomised big-city living, and were designed to appeal to sophisticated professionals unmoved by the charms of suburban bungalows.
Bill Sanders, who lived in Courtville from 1916 to 1923, remembers its well-heeled occupants: ‘In those days the tenants of Courtville were mostly professional people with offices in the City and naturally all walked down Shortland St or Bowen Ave. They looked rather an elegant lot in bowler hats and walking canes.’1
Because of their greater association with modernity and big city life, blocks of flats rather than town houses took off. Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch experienced a spate of inner-city apartment building in the 1920s and 1930s – more than 30 blocks had been built in central Wellington by 1939. Their growing appeal was attributed to shrinking incomes (due to the economic depression), a lack of servants and increased pressure on people’s time. People were looking for housing that was relatively inexpensive, centrally located and comfortable. Equipped with electricity and featuring streamlined, built-in furniture, these flats offered freedom from the domestic chores associated with large houses.
Inner-city flats were intended for single adults and childless couples, although some families also lived in them.
The first Labour government supported inner-city living, and in 1936 promised to replace slums with modern blocks. However, it soon dropped this focus in favour of building new state rental homes in the suburbs. Even so, in the 1940s it built a number of blocks of state rental flats in inner Auckland and Wellington for those ‘who have interests other than gardens and babies’2 – mainly the single, childless, and elderly. These blocks were architecturally modern and striking. In Wellington the Dixon St Flats (built in 1943) dominated the city’s skyline. However, subsequent governments rejected the high-rise option and refocused their efforts on suburban housing.
‘The Radiant City’ – in Wellington
In 1947, inspired by European architect Le Corbusier’s plans for a new Paris, a group of Wellington architecture students proposed rebuilding Te Aro in a similar vein. The whole area would be razed and rebuilt with modern buildings and apartment blocks set in park-like surrounds. The students mounted an exhibition of their plans in the central library. More than 20,000 visitors marvelled at their vision; however, their plans were too radical and were never realised.
After the Second World War the inner city remained home to workers, the poor and transient, and the urbane. Many of these people moved to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s, when much of the dilapidated housing was replaced with commercial and industrial premises. Inner-city populations continued to fall. Nonetheless, the construction of a number of high-rise flats in 1960s and 1970s Wellington indicated a continuing demand for such accommodation.