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In search of a new "Kiwi urbanism"

Industrial scale development leaves little room for individual expression. But Vinegar Lane in Ponsonby is a notable exception. Georgina Harris speaks with David Irwin, creative director at Isthmus Group, about the unique project and the concept of ‘collective individuality’.

Based in the trendy Auckland suburb of Ponsonby, Vinegar Lane is an innovative development – a mix of commercial, residential and light-industrial buildings – buoyed by a collaborative, collective approach, and housing on a smaller but denser scale.

Before 2012, the space was a large and very prominent hole following the failure of the infamous Soho Square. But in 2012, it was developed as two integrated projects: the Cider Building and Vinegar Lane (the ‘Cider’ and ‘Vinegar’ names give a nod to the site's former use as the Dominion Yeast Vinegar factory).  

The ‘Cider’ part now comprises a high-end Countdown supermarket, along with retail spaces, offices and parking. Vinegar Lane offers a different kind of urban house and aims to be a prototype for how our cities, and particularly Auckland, can accommodate higher densities in the future – and in a way suited to New Zealand traditions. 

The concept was tested by six architects engaged to design individual houses within the framework. And the rules of the urban houses are: 

• Can be up to four storeys high.

• Full site coverage on small lots, with individual designs by individual owners on freehold titles.

• Different architects must be used for adjourning sites.

• Private outdoor living space incorporated within each house, such as internal courtyards and roof terraces.

The consent mechanism is also innovative; all lots have to abide by a design manual that sets out development controls and design reviews, and there is a design panel process to ensure quality and adherence.

Individuality

Not having terraced housing was a chance for individual owners and their architects to inject personality into their spaces. 

“A development like [Vinegar Lane] allows people to evolve to what they actually want … they are able to take their own individual stamp and put it on their home and design what they want, rather than a developer telling them ‘this is what you’re going to get,” Irwin says. 

Inspiration for the type of form seen at Vinegar Lane came not from some far-flung place, but from the Auckland suburb of Freeman’s Bay, where the Isthmus studio is based.  

“It’s the idea that there are these tight, semi-industrial-type units that the city developed off, these smaller units where you could own your site and build your response.”

He mentions Queen Street as an example. 

“Each building is an individual response. There’s no orchestrated design and the city is a reflection of that. But over time we’ve gone on to precondition and make developments bigger. That predisposes everything else, and then you lease the land, you lease the outcome, it’s a different model.” 

Kiwi Urbanism

Irwin says Vinegar Lane is, in a way, coming back to a traditional New Zealand way of design and build. 

“You own a small block of land and you develop and build what you want. [Vinegar Lane] just happens to be neater and dense, so it’s quite tight to do so, but that’s the way the city works and it’s a return to that idea – that’s why we’ve called it a Kiwi Urbanism.”

However, Irwin says he doesn’t think this idea of ‘Kiwi Urbanism’ is taking hold in New Zealand. 

“There are not many examples, or even many people thinking about what ‘Kiwi Urbanism’ means in a residential sense. There’s plenty of discussion about urbanism and lots of discussion about what we should do as a city in terms of transport, housing affordability and housing prices, but there’s actually not much discussion about what form that should take on as a specific New Zealand response.”

Problem solving

Irwin says we should ask ourselves the question of what Kiwi Urbanism is because New Zealand, and New Zealanders, have a specific culture. 

“We value land and we value ownership, family, a backyard, so how do we do those things in a new, urban environment? You question how you live when you go smaller and smaller. We’ve got to get simpler, we’ve got to get rid of a lot of crap … how do we adjust our lifestyles?” 

Irwin says one way is to zero in on the things that are important to us, such as having a garden or friends around for a barbecue, and then figure out how that can be achieved. 

“Maybe they’re more important than the size of the house. What I hope to put out there is problem solving on a grand scale; solving a problem with an idea.”

"You own a small block of land and you develop and build what you want. [Vinegar Lane] just happens to be neater and dense, so it’s quite tight to do so, but that’s the way the city works and it’s a return to that idea – that’s why we’ve called it a Kiwi Urbanism."

- David Irwin

Irwin says there is a range of users who have purchased residential sites so far, not just ‘hipsters’ living in urban housing.

“There are people that work and live, retirees, lock and leave, people renting an apartment, retail … ‘the market’ is way more nuanced and varied.”

He says in terms of a Vinegar Lane timeline there are still a couple of years to go before all the residential sites are designed, built and occupied. 

“It’s going pretty quick considering how many units there are, and how many buildings there are to build. The process is longer if they are not terraced houses but instead individual owners – it’s a risk, but it’s also what makes it different.”

And in world of sameness, of big box retailers, big box apartments and big box office buildings, creating something that allows individual expression is to be commended.