Dorset Street Flats

2-16 Dorset Street, Christchurch

  • Dorset Street Flats.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Tjalling de Vries. Date: 31/10/2009.
  • Dorset Street Flats. 'Proposed Flats Dorset Estates Ltd.’.
    Copyright: Macmillan Brown Library, University of Canterbury. Taken By: Miles Warren.
  • Dorset Street Flats. Living room of number 4.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Tjalling de Vries. Date: 31/10/2009.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 7804 Date Entered 30th April 2010

Locationopen/close

Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Lot 2 Deposited Plan 18797, Canterbury Land District and the buildings and structures known as Dorset Street Flats thereon, and its fittings and fixtures and the following chattels: the Norwegian Jotul freestanding stoves installed in the living rooms of number 4 and number 16. The extant in-built furniture and fittings as described in the Physical Description are included within the extent of the registration. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Christchurch City

Region

Canterbury Region

Legal description

Lot 2 DP 18797, Flat 1 DP 42247 and Garage 1 DP 42247 (CT CB41A/184), Lot 2 DP 18797, Flat 2 DP 42247 and Garage 2 DP 42247 (CT CB41A/185), Lot 2 DP 18797, Flat 3 DP 42247 and Garage 3 DP 42247 (CT CB41A/186), Lot 2 DP 18797, Flat 4 DP 42247 and Garage 4 DP 42247 (CT CB41A/187), Lot 2 DP 18797, Flat 5 DP 42247 (CT CB41A/188), Lot 2 DP 18797, Flat 6 DP 42247 (CT CB41A/189), Lot 2 DP 18797, Flat 7 DP 42247 (CT CB41A/190), Lot 2 DP 18797, Flat 8 DP 42247 (CT CB41A/191), Lot 2 DP 18797, Flat 9 DP 42247 (CT CB41A/192), All Canterbury Land District

Summaryopen/close

The Dorset Street Flats in Christchurch were designed and built between 1956 and 1957 and are amongst the most important domestic buildings built in New Zealand in the second half of the twentieth century. Miles Warren (b. 1929, later Sir Miles Warren) designed them as a young architect and with these flats he launched an architectural vocabulary that would come to distinguish the 'Christchurch School' of post-war architecture and also helped to shape modernist architectural design nationally for over two decades.

Warren designed the Flats for himself and two associates as owner-occupied accommodation with an extra flat for each owner to let for income. Built on a 771 square metre inner-city section, Warren's design allowed for eight one-bedroom flats and the conversion of an existing stable block for a ninth flat, four garages and a communal laundry space. These flats marked the emergence of a new kind of residential living in New Zealand, that is, a small-scale group of purpose-designed, modern, modest-sized one-bedroom city flats for minimal living.

The Dorset Street Flats, with their axial planning, load-bearing exposed concrete block walls, concrete beams, negative detailing and bold use of colour typify the attitudes to materials and structure in architecture favoured by New Brutalism, an avant garde architectural moment within the Modern Movement that began in Britain in the mid-1950s and was highly influenced by the post-war work of Le Corbusier. Warren experienced the birth of New Brutalism when he was working in Britain in 1953-54 and encountered several key exponents of this architectural approach that were highly influential in the Flats. Warren was also concerned with developing a modernist architectural expression suitable for Christchurch's climate and conditions. He considered masonry construction more suited to Christchurch and selected concrete block as the principle building material for the Flats. The Dorset Street Flats are one of the earliest attempts to construct a building in New Zealand from load-bearing concrete block.

Warren took a total design approach to the Dorset Street Flats by designing built-in furniture and fittings for all of the flats, reflecting what would become a career-long interest in total design. This not only satisfied his architectural ideals but also provided practical solutions for young men living independently with few possessions or furniture. The design also incorporated landscape design with four private courtyards and outdoor amenities. While all the Flats have had some alterations to the interior fabric, many of Warren's original design elements remain extant and the Flats retain many of their original fittings and finishes.

The Dorset Street Flats is one of Miles Warren's earliest architectural projects and is a key work within his oeuvre. Warren has been recognised nationally and internationally as one of the most important New Zealand architects of the second half of the twentieth century. The Dorset Street Flats set new architectural, social and aesthetic standards for domestic buildings in New Zealand and are recognised as one of the most important Modern Movement buildings constructed in this country.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

This building is one of the first buildings designed by Miles Warren and is a key work within his oeuvre. Warren has been recognised nationally and internationally as one of the most important New Zealand architects of the second half of the twentieth century. The Dorset Street Flats set new architectural, social and aesthetic standards for domestic buildings in New Zealand and are of outstanding significance as one of the most important Modern Movement buildings constructed in this country.

Warren designed the Flats on his return from working in Britain and travelling in Europe and they reflect the influences he absorbed while overseas. As the Flats were constructed for the use of Warren and his friends, they were the first building he designed without the constraint of a conservative client and this enabled him to freely pursue his architectural concerns and beliefs.

The flats reflect the changing social needs for housing in the post-war period, as young, single professionals without the need for state-provided housing sought to live in small city flats that met their requirements for low-maintenance minimal urban living.

The flats are also of historical significance as Warren, who has only had three permanent residences since his return from Europe, lived in number 4 from 1958 to 1965 and as such, the modesty, size and location of the flats reflect his youth and beginnings as an architect. They are also an example of his own, physical handiwork, as the brick paving on the paths and in some of the gardens were laid and planted by Warren and his friend and fellow Dorset Street owner-occupier, Michael Weston. Warren has also become a notable garden designer in New Zealand; the pond and the golden Japanese maple tree are original features in the garden of number 4 Dorset Street.

Aesthetic Significance or Value

The Dorset Street Flats strongly express the sense of weight and enclosure provided by masonry construction as well as the pleasing and contrasting textures and appearance of precisely laid and exposed blockwork, both painted white and unpainted, concrete, clear-varnished timber and brick. The use of a limited range of materials and total design approach make the Dorset Street Flats an aesthetically consistent living environment. The careful composition of the elevations creates a pleasing balance of solid and void created by the shadows cast in the deep recessions contrasting with the crisp planar white-painted wall surfaces. A sense of expanding space is created by the openness of the planning, especially on the ground floor where the sliding doors into the bedroom and the courtyard create a continuous living space. This is further enhanced by the abstract sense of the division of space, with floor, wall and ceiling surfaces continuing beyond the edge of the building plane. There is also a successfully strong aesthetic contrast between the starkness of the flats and the lush, green foliage of their verdant gardens. The uncompromising use and treatment of what were then regarded as industrial materials in the domestic setting of the Dorset Street Flats were radical in New Zealand and illustrated Le Corbusier's influential treatment of materials.

Architectural Significance or Value

The Dorset Street Flats, with their axial planning, load-bearing exposed concrete block walls, concrete beams, negative detailing and bold use of colour typify the attitudes to materials and structure in architecture favoured by New Brutalism, an avant garde architectural moment within the Modern Movement that began in Britain in the mid-1950s and was highly influenced by the post-war work of Le Corbusier. Miles Warren encountered the birth of New Brutalism when he was working in Britain in 1953-54 and visited Le Corbusier's most important post-war work, Unite d'Habitation (1949-54) in 1955. The manner in which openings in the masonry walls were treated also showed the influence of Danish architect Finn Juhl. Warren's particular approach to contemporary, European architectural ideas as explored in the Dorset Street Flats was highly influential and in the Flats Warren set what would become the hallmarks of a local response to the principles of New Brutalism. Warren's careful and particular design approach was applied to every aspect of the detailing, fittings and in-built furniture of the flats, reflecting what would become a career-long interest in total design.

Technological Significance or Value

The Dorset Street Flats are one of the earliest attempts to construct a building in New Zealand from load-bearing concrete block. As they were required to use a number of concrete columns within the wall structure, Miles Warren and Lyall Holmes were ultimately unsuccessful in realising double-cavity reinforced concrete block construction in the Dorset Street Flats. However, the Dorset Street Flats were an important transitional building in Holmes' development of this innovative and influential structural system, as subsequent designs were built without the additional columnar support.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

The Dorset Street Flats are a response to changing social needs for housing in the post-war period and new requirements for inner-city living among young, single professionals. The Flats marked the emergence of a new kind of residential living in New Zealand: a small-scale group of purpose-designed, modern, modest-sized one-bedroom city flats for minimal living. The influence of this building type on Christchurch domestic architecture is reflected in the repetition of aspects of this design in later projects by Miles Warren and other architects. The Flats possess outstanding significance as an early articulation of Modernism and in the establishment of a dwelling type that has become characteristic of Christchurch architecture and highly influential in the development of New Zealand's post-war architecture.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history

The Flats have special significance as a major early project in Miles Warren's career that allowed full and free articulation of his architectural concerns and the formulation of the influences he acquired while working in Europe. Warren has been recognised nationally and internationally as one of the most important New Zealand architects of the second half of the twentieth century.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place

At its construction, 'Fort Dorset' bemused the Christchurch community for its unconventional use of materials and aesthetic approach, and was once reputed to be the ugliest group of buildings in the city. However, the Dorset Street Flats soon became greatly admired in architectural circles, and many prominent New Zealand architects have lived in the Flats. The Flats continue to attract national and international interest as a resolved statement of a new direction in post-war domestic architecture, and the Dorset Street Flats are now well-known and highly regarded among Christchurch residents.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place

The Dorset Street Flats are one of the earliest attempts to construct a building in New Zealand from load-bearing concrete block. Although this form of masonry construction was not fully-resolved in this complex as local authority engineering requirements necessitated the use of reinforced-concrete columns, this project enabled the exploration of this construction method which was fully exploited in later developments by the architect and building contractors.

The design of the Flats constitutes an early expression of the aesthetics of New Brutalism in New Zealand in the use and treatment of materials, structure and form. Warren's total design approach is also significant and the complex possesses high integrity as many of the original elements of his design remain unaltered.

Summary of Significance or Values

This place was assessed against, and found it to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, e and g.

Conclusion

It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category I historic place.

Miles Warren's Dorset Street Flats are outstanding as a pioneering example of a building type, construction method and aesthetic approach that was repeated in other projects by Warren and later architects that constituted a characteristic Christchurch architectural idiom of the post-war period. The Flats are recognised as one of the most important Modern Movement buildings constructed in New Zealand, as identified by DOCOMOMO New Zealand.

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Construction Professionalsopen/close

Warren, Frederick Miles

Warren, (Frederick) Miles (later Sir Miles Warren)

Born in Christchurch in 1929, Miles Warren had an early introduction to architecture, working in the office of Cecil Wood (1878-1947) from 1946 to 47. From 1949 to 50 he studied at the Auckland University School of Architecture, after studying the professional course through the Christchurch Atelier. At Auckland, Warren was taught by Vernon Brown (1905-1965) and was exposed to The Group's introduction of modernist principles to New Zealand architecture. After graduating he returned to Christchurch and worked for two years in the office of Bill Trengrove, before leaving for England in 1953. In London, Warren found employment as an architect at London City Council and worked on the design for the Alton West Estate at Roehampton. While in Europe he travelled through the continent, including Scandinavia and experienced first-hand the modernism of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

In 1955 Warren returned to Christchurch and started his own private practice. For his first large-scale commission, the Dental Nurses Training School in 1958, he enlisted his contemporary Maurice Mahoney to collaborate, forming the beginning of their long partnership. Warren and Mahoney conducted a number of commissions in Christchurch in the 1960s and 1970s that established the practice's signature style of modern architecture, such as Christchurch College (1964), Christchurch Town Hall (1965-72) and a number of residential developments. Later major commissions included the New Zealand Chancery in Washington, DC (1979) and the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington (1983).

Warren is the recipient of a number of honours and awards for his services to architecture, including a CBE in 1974, a KBE in 1985 and was admitted to the Order of New Zealand, New Zealand's highest honour, in 1995. ('Dorset Street Flats', NZHPT Registration Report, 12 April 2010 (Record no. 7804).

Holmes, (Ivan) Lyall

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Cecil and R. Davenport & Sons

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

The Dorset Street Flats were designed and built between 1956 and 1957 and are amongst the most important domestic buildings constructed in New Zealand in the second half of the twentieth century. Miles Warren (b.1929, later Sir Miles Warren) designed them as a young architect and with these flats he launched an architectural vocabulary that would come to distinguish the 'Christchurch School' of post-war architecture and also helped to shape modernist architectural design nationally for over two decades. They remain a key influence in the practice of New Zealand architectural design.

In 1955 Warren returned to his hometown of Christchurch from two years working and travelling in Europe and started his own private practice, the first notable commission being a house for family friends in Timaru, Mervyn and Brenda Raymond. The Dorset Street Flats was one of the first fully independent designs Warren undertook. Unlike the Raymond House he had the advantage of a completely free hand over the design and was effectively his own client. In 1956 Warren and two of his friends decided to build a block of flats for their own occupation, with extra flats to let as income, and they formed a registered company, Dorset Estates Limited for this purpose. Having the freedom to pursue his own particular vision, Warren, 'brimful of a year and a half in London, [was] determined to make a building stuffed full of everything he knew'.

Primary in Warren's thinking at the time were his encounters with modernist British architecture, especially the recent explosion of New Brutalism and his first-hand experience of continental European architecture, such as contemporary Danish architects in and around Copenhagen and the work of Le Corbusier in France. His education at the Auckland School of Architecture (Warren graduated in 1950) and his ideas about a suitable local modernist architectural expression for Christchurch also informed his thinking. One shared concept amongst all the international influences but distinct from established local ideas of modernist architecture was the value and nature of masonry construction. 'Like most young New Zealand architects coming to Europe for the first time, I discovered a sense of the solidity of masonry walls - their weight, their load-bearing capacity, their sense of enclosure, all in marked contrast to our thin 4 x 2 inch partition walls'. Although, Warren agreed with Auckland modernist architects The Group architects' 1946 manifesto that, 'New Zealand must have its own architecture, its own sense of what is beautiful and appropriate to our climate and conditions,' he considered the light, timber-framed construction favoured by like The Group inappropriate for the climate, conditions and local traditions in Christchurch and the South Island in general.

In London, Warren witnessed firsthand the emergence of New Brutalism, the movement which endeavoured to return modernist architecture to first principles: truth to function, truth to structure and truth to materials. 'I was London at the LCC [London County Council architects], extraordinarily fortunate to be sitting right in the middle of the birth of Brutalism. I went over the Hunstanton School with the Smithsons and Ove Arup... I went to the great debate at the AA about the Leeds housing competition, lapped up the Corbusian influence of the LCC led by Bill Howell, Killick, Amis, Partridge etc...' While Alison and Peter Smithson's famous Hunstanton School was a Miesian exercise in steel and brick, the Smithsons and other London architects were just as interested in the ideas of Le Corbusier, and in particular his use of beton brut, literally 'raw concrete', also known as fair-faced or exposed concrete. The unequivocal expression of materials was rationalised by Le Corbusier in his influential statement that 'architecture is the construction of emotional relationships out of brute materials'. In 1955, Warren visited Le Corbusier's most famous post-war building, the Unite d'Habitation in Marseilles, a tour-de-force multi-unit housing project in reinforced fair-faced concrete with bright accents of block colours.

In an earlier continental jaunt Warren had travelled through Scandinavia to visit key modernist buildings by Norwegian and Danish architects, amongst these was the work of Finn Juhl, an architect better known for his furniture design. Juhl's own house at Charlottelund, north of Copenhagen, designed and built in 1941-42, was a straightforward arrangement of pure forms: two basic horizontal blocks under shallow pitched roofs with no eaves, joined by a flat-roofed entry block with tall chimneys providing a vertical counterpoint. Built in brick plastered to a grey-white finish, Warren must have absorbed the way in which the openings for doors and windows appeared as though simply punctured or cut through the brickwork, revealing the solidity and construction of the load-bearing walls. The house established an open relationship with its setting and the woodland beyond, with generous sliding doors opening to the garden.

Another important influence upon Warren's ideas on modern living were the South Hill Flats, a terrace of six houses designed by Bill and Gillian Howell and Stanley Amis for themselves and some friends in Hampstead Heath at the time Warren worked with them at the LCC housing division. This flat-roofed, reinforced concrete terrace with its banks of large south-facing windows and balconies not only gave each of the families involved a house of their own but a separate flat to lease. Interior finishes included white painted brick and blockwork with timber. In the Dorset Street Flats, all these ideas would merge with Warren's own particular aesthetic and concepts for modern living.

The Flats reflect the changing social needs for housing in the post-war period, as young, single professionals sought to live in small city flats that met their requirements for low-maintenance minimal urban living. Christchurch's domestic buildings, including those within the inner-city area, were almost all detached single-unit dwellings on independent sections. The Dorset Street area was formerly occupied by large dwellings and grounds such as the adjacent Johnstone residence and Cecil Wood's Bishopscourt, the former residence of the Anglican Bishop of Christchurch, located adjacent to the southern boundary of Lot 2 DP 18797. Smaller residences were also located in the area and a number of nineteenth century cottages remain on the north side of Dorset Street. However, multi-unit dwellings were built during the inter-war period and many of these developments were located in the vicinity of Dorset Street in the area around Victoria Street and Cranmer Square, bordered by Bealey Avenue and between Montreal Street and Park Terrace. Notable early multi-unit residences include Victoria Mansions (NZHPT record no. 3142) designed by Heathcote Helmore and constructed circa 1935 on the corner of Victoria and Montreal Streets and Helmore and Cotterill's maisonettes (NZHPT record no. 3724) built from 1939 to 1941 on the corner of Bealey Avenue and Dublin Street. Other apartment block developments were erected in Salisbury Street and further south at the intersection of Montreal and Hereford Streets West Avon and St Elmo Courts were constructed in 1930. This concentration of higher density residential developments was recognised in the 1962 Christchurch City Planning Scheme that provided for higher-density living in this area.

The site purchased by Dorset Estates Limited on 8 August 1956 was a lot recently divided from an original Town Reserve section (TR 25), previously owned by prominent solicitor and Canterbury property owner Harry Bell Johnstone. Town Reserve 25 faced Park Terrace, a fashionable street of mainly larger dwellings situated opposite Hagley Park and the Avon River/Otakaro. Meandering its way from a spring source in Avonhead through Christchurch city and out to sea via the estuary, Avon River/Otakaro was a popular recreational river among Christchurch's European settlers and highly regarded as a seasonal mahinga kai by Waitaha, Ngati Mamoe and Ngai Tahu. Fresh kai included Patiki (flounder) were speared, eels (tuna), ducks, whitebait (inaka) and native trout. The Canterbury Museum holds some important Maori taonga that have been recovered from Otakaro, including a canoe paddle made of manuka.

In 1902, Johnstone's widow, Isabella, built a large house for herself on the corner of Park Terrace and what was then Park Street (it was renamed Dorset Street in 1904). Designed by Collins & Harman, the Old English style house with its picturesque, jumbled roofline of multiple gabled forms and prominent chimneys, had half-timbered upper storeys placed on a ground floor of brick and pebble-dash. The house was converted into flats in 1935 and was still standing in early 1956 when Warren began the design work for Dorset Street Flats. It is depicted in broad terms as a simplified silhouette in the background of a watercolour perspective of the Dorset Street Flats produced by Warren. Collins & Harman also designed a separate stable for the wealthy Mrs Johnstone to house her horses, carriages and stablehands: 'Built in brick, it accommodated four horses, with a coach house and harness room on the groundfloor and upstairs a boy's room and a storage area for straw and feed. Two downstairs windows were added later, as well as two small dormer windows on either side of the central dormer.' In the subdivision of Pt TR 25 in 1956 the stable was included within Lot 2 of DP 18797, purchased by Dorset Estate Limited for the new flats.

Instead of demolishing the stables, Warren incorporated them into the new development: they were converted into four garages (each assigned to one of the ground floor flats) and a shared laundry for all residents. The presence of the stables helped determine the layout of the eight flats on the site: two identical two storey blocks with four flats in each (two up, two down), with the two blocks partially overlapping as the eastern-most block was pushed north, towards the street, to allow for the retention of the stable/garages behind.

These flats marked the emergence of a new kind of residential living in New Zealand: a small-scale group of purpose-designed, modern, modest-sized one-bedroom city flats for minimal living. As Douglas Lloyd Jenkins has noted, in the New Zealand context they 'provided one of the first attempts... at a unit suitable for urban living, built around the needs of a single person not reliant on the state for housing.' It was a type of housing, the noted architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner observed in 1958, New Zealand was in need of: 'Flats, everybody here expects me to say something against flats. Well - the truth is I can't. I think you are building too few flats... because... According to your 1951 census 32 per cent of your 'permanent private dwellings'... consist of two persons or less... don't you think... 10 per cent would prefer a flat to a house if they could get one?'

The Dorset Street Flats established an alternative form of multi-unit dwelling to large apartment blocks, semi-detached housing and the division of larger houses into flats. These particular flats were designed for three young bachelor owner-occupiers: Simon Wood and Michael Weston, both lawyers, and Miles Warren himself. It was intended that each would occupy a ground floor flat, with the first-floor flats let to tenants to provide Dorset Estates Limited with an income. In consideration of their youth and the fact that most of the units were designated for tenancy, the building was designed to be 'as simple and economic as possible with a minimum of maintenance and upkeep' and this was part of the reason for constructing the flats in concrete block. However, Warren selected concrete block principally because: he considered masonry construction more suited to the local climate and conditions; he had a keen appreciation of the phenomenological qualities of substance, enclosure and load-bearing capacity provided by masonry; it was a quintessentially local and modern material that allowed an alternative means of masonry construction to brick which carried with it associations of traditional use; and he found particular aesthetic pleasure in the texture and pattern of well-laid blockwork.

To allow for this aesthetic experience and to conform to New Brutalism's principle of truth to materials, surfaces in the building expressed the value of their materials: the concrete block walls were left unplastered and supported what were originally fair-faced concrete beams, with both block and reinforced concrete exposed on the exterior and interior surfaces, although the blocks were painted white. Likewise, timber was clear-varnished or oiled. The thickness and load-bearing quality of the concrete block walls was expressed by the recession and detailing of the doors and windows, as well as the set-back roof, which, without projecting eaves and with well set-back bargeboards, allowed the structural integrity of the walls to be plainly read.

The integrity of the structural expression was not, however, as the architect desired, as the Christchurch City Council engineers did not share Warren's enthusiasm and confidence in the load-bearing capacity of concrete block masonry. Despite the best efforts of the building's young structural engineer, Lyall Holmes (c.1923-1970), the Council refused to accept that the exterior walls of two skins of double concrete block and interior walls of single skin block were structurally sound and insisted on the introduction of a number of reinforced concrete columns within the walls. The Dorset Street Flats, however, would prove a good testing ground for the team of young architect and engineer, as after this experiment the pair's future buildings in reinforced concrete block were approved by the City Council.

New Brutalism (as it was at this point in time, before it was abbreviated to 'Brutalism') was not just about structural, material and functional truth. Several of the Smithsons' early designs, including the Hunstanton School visited by Warren, emphasised what was called 'formal legibility of plan'. At Hunstanton, this legibility resulted from an axial and symmetrical plan, two devices used to good effect by Warren in the planning of the Dorset Street Flats. The Flats are organised according to two parallel axes, one in each block, with every pair of flats bisected by an external stair that gives access to the flats on the first floor. A long, narrow path walled by the tall concrete block courtyard fences of the ground floor flats on either side, connects the stairs to the street and gives full expression to the axial planning. On either side of the axis, the internal planning of the flats are mirror images of each other, with the large living area on the inside, closest to the stair, and the three 'boxes' of kitchen, bath and bedroom on the exterior edge. The axial external stair not only logically orders the plan but also serves to separate the flats from each other vertically, allowing for soundproofing.

In true modernist fashion, Warren considered the flats in abstract terms:

'...each flat was designed as a spatial unity, that is, not a collection of box-like small rooms but as planes and solids within the large space. Living room and bedroom [in the ground floor flats] are divided by a broad sliding door and when that is open the two rooms are visually and practically one. The w.c., shower etc are contained in a clearly defined 'box' within the total space. To assist this sense of unity, walls and ceiling finishes both colour and textures are the same throughout all rooms. The apparent size of the living room is greatly increased by a completely glazed north wall with ceiling and wall finishes and brightly coloured panels extending 4ft beyond the glass and further with garden walls on the same plane... the Ground floors are concrete slabs... lying hard on the ground enabling the brick garden terraces to finish level with the floors and to continue the extension of wall and ceiling planes.'

Warren took a total design approach to the Dorset Street Flats by designing built-in furniture and fittings for all of the flats. This not only satisfied his architectural ideals but also provided practical solutions for young men living independently with few possessions or furniture. The living rooms were given a wall or half a wall of built in shelving, the ground floor flats' shelving including a fold-down writing desk and a drinks cabinet. Kitchen cabinets included an in-built dish drying rack above the sink, the bathroom cabinets a sliding mirror door and the bedrooms all featured an in-built wardrobe and drawers; two kinds of handles were used on sliding and hinged cupboard doors, whether they were in the bathroom, bedroom or kitchen. Unlike many later post-war buildings using the same architectural language, the Dorset Street Flats incorporated bright colours of paint applied to non load-bearing wall surfaces, an influence gleaned from Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation. Warren also specifically designed exterior fittings, including the louvered gates (since replaced) and the metal letterboxes.

The flats were built by Cecil & R Davenport & Sons. All three of the owners became occupiers of the flats on their completion in 1957. Simon Wood lived in number 2 Dorset Street Miles Warren lived in number 4 and Michael Weston in number 16. The names of all original occupiers remain on embossed metal tags attached to the meter boxes of all the flats, except numbers 2 and 6, whose tags are missing. As listed on the meter boxes, the original tenants included noted local restaurateur John Leon Langley in number 8, G. E. Moir in number 10, G. F. Dillon, a farmer, in number 12 and Michael Davis, a surveyor who was a good friend and fellow Christ's College 'old boy' to Wood, Warren and Weston, in number 14. Kay or Kathy Ryan, who ran a coffee shop in Bedford Row, was an original tenant of number 6. Peter Hollings, a company manager, was resident in number 2 in 1959 but later moved to number 10. Warren remained in residence at number 4 until the first stage of his new architectural offices and flat at 65 Cambridge Terrace was completed in 1965. Later tenants included architect Allan Mitchener, who would go on to teach architecture at the University of Auckland and who lived at number 14 from circa 1962 to 1966. Jonty Rout, who as a young architect got his first job out of university with Warren & Mahoney, lived in number 8 with his wife Morrin in 1973; Rout would go on to establish the prominent Christchurch architectural practice Sheppard & Rout. Other architects who lived in the Dorset Street Flats included Nicholas Kennedy (number 4, 1968) and Gordon Cullinan (number 8, circa 1968 to 1972). Another member of Warren & Mahoney, practice manager William Fox, lived in number 4 from around 1970 to 1972. In around 1976 to 1977, Miles Warren used number 4 as over-flow office space when working on a large (and ultimately unrealised) project in Iran. More recent tenants have included artist Peter Robinson, who lived there when teaching at Christ's College in the late 1990s.

Michael Weston eventually bought out the other partners of Dorset Estates Limited and by 1978, owned the whole property outright. His wife inherited it on his death in 1993 and as she passed away shortly after, her three children inherited the flats in 1994. They sold the flats in 1995 in two stages, although one flat still remains in the possession of one of Weston's stepchildren. Since then the Dorset Street Flats have attracted owners and tenants who have been fascinated by their history and architecture.

On their completion and subsequent publication, the Dorset Street Flats acquired notoriety with the general public and became greatly admired in architectural circles. They were soon dubbed ‘Fort Dorset' for their substantial and uncompromising expression of concrete block and it is widely accepted that tour buses would drive via Dorset Street to ogle what were reputed to be the ugliest buildings in the city. Architects, however, viewed them entirely differently. Within a decade, Warren's Christchurch counterpart, architect Peter Beaven, wrote in the journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 'The shattering first view of these flats, their statement of private urban living and their frank use of materials, was a revelation to New Zealand architects. We could see the future.'

That future was the establishment of a distinct, widely-recognised Canterbury or Christchurch architectural modernist lexicon based on the territory explored in the Dorset Street Flats: load-bearing white-painted or exposed reinforced concrete block combined with fair-faced concrete, a refined use of timber and negative detailing, all realised with the highest craftsmanship. Warren entered into partnership with Maurice Mahoney (b. 1929) in 1958 and with the consultation of Lyall Holmes, Warren & Mahoney fully explored the expressive Brutalist potential of this architectural vocabulary, reaching a climax in their design of Christchurch College, the Anglican halls of residence at the University of Canterbury (1964-67). Before that, however, Warren went on to design further flats along the same lines as investment properties for himself and his friend Michael Weston. In Carlton Mill Road they built a block of four flats, in Andover Street blocks of six and eight flats and in Clissold Street a further eight units. In addition to the use of the same material language, they were designed on similar lines to the Dorset Street flats: axial and symmetrical planning, north facing with generous openings onto gardens or balconies. The combination of concrete block, fair-faced concrete and high quality timber finishes not only became part of the accepted vocabulary of the practice of Warren & Mahoney but was also widely adopted by architects in Christchurch and beyond.

The Dorset Street Flats were swiftly recognised as a notable contribution to New Zealand architecture. An early illustration of the building in a 1958 article by Nikolaus Pevsner in the international publication, The Listener, is an important moment in the history of the Dorset Street Flats. They were also published in Home & Building twice in 1959, the second time making the cover and that same year were included in the New Zealand section of the first in a series of issues of The Architectural Review dedicated to reviewing architecture throughout the Commonwealth. Since then their canonical status has been acknowledged by nearly every major publication on New Zealand architecture and not only in volumes on the modern movement in New Zealand. The section on architecture in the 'Cultural Aspects' of the seminal title A History of Canterbury, states, 'If a watershed is sought in Canterbury architecture, it probably lies somewhere in the middle 1950s. On his return in 1955 from further studies in England, F.M. Warren broke new ground with a block of flats (1957) in Dorset Street, Christchurch...' It is now widely accepted that not only are the Dorset Street Flats 'one of the best known New Zealand buildings of the 50s' but that they 'made an impact out of all proportion to their size and commonplace materials.'

Physical Description

The Dorset Street Flats are on a fairly flat rectangular-shaped site of 771 square metres with a wide street-frontage of 35 metres. The eight flats are formed in two offset rectangular blocks set back from the street, with the western most block set back even further into the site. Vehicular access is gained from Dorset Street via a short asphalt driveway at the east end of the property; this also allows access to the front doors of numbers 14 and 16 from the rear of the east block of flats. Further pedestrian access is via one of three brick-laid pathways. One wide path along the west boundary of the property gives access to the rear of the flats, in particular to the west block and to the main doors to numbers 2 and 4. A second narrow path runs from the street up a short flight of three brick steps and leads to an external stair in the centre of the west block which gives access to numbers 6 and 8 on the first floor, this path also provides access through wall-height timber gates to the garden courtyards of numbers 2 and 4. The same arrangement of a narrow path leading to centrally placed external stairs is repeated for the eastern block, albeit with a shorter pathway; it gives access to first floor flats numbers 10 and 12 and the garden courtyards of numbers 14 and 16. These slot pathways are also paved in brick, which continues under the stairs to extend to the rear of the flats. At the street end of the long western pathway this paving commences with a pattern of concentric squares in brick with a richly marbled paving stone in the centre the path through the west block is also terminated by this design. Under the stairs are the meter boxes for the flats, all the boxes but those for numbers 2 and 6 have metal tags embossed with the names of the original occupiers.

Extending off the flats towards the street are four courtyard gardens, one for each of the ground floor flats. Each garden is treated slightly differently; numbers 14 and 16 are smaller than numbers 2 and 4: number 2 has a small lawn with concrete pavers and rose bushes; number 4 has a long, narrow pond on the west boundary and is mostly paved with brick with an off-centre large golden Japanese maple tree and a raised bed against the front wall; number 14 is paved with bricks set in a concentric square with a centre filled with a herringbone pattern and a raised bed to the north and west bordered by concrete blocks and bricks [number 16 unknown]. The garden courtyards are fenced with high concrete block walls on a dark-grey painted concrete base; all the wall surfaces are painted white, except for the street-facing plane of the exterior wall, which sits hard up against the street boundary; this is left untreated as exposed concrete block. This street-facing wall is the same width as the two flats and contains two narrow slots, allowing for the two pathways that give access to the stairs and first floor flats. The street numbers for the flats are given on white tiles with dark-painted digits and are set high up into the fair-faced concrete block wall. They are placed to indicate pedestrian access to the front door of each flat, with numbers 2 and 4 at the west end of the wall, 6 and 8 on either side of the centre-west pathway, 10 and 12 on either side of the centre-east pathway and 14 and 16 on the east end of the wall. Just behind the front wall on either side of the slot pathways are deep recessions providing space for rubbish and waste bins. Just beyond this, metal letterboxes are set into the walls on either side of the paths.

There is an additional building at the southeast corner of the site: a two-storey brick building, formerly the Johnstone stables, dating from 1902. It has a steeply-pitched roof with finials above the gables and three dormer windows facing north, a large central one which is original but has a more recent small steel balcony added on and two flanking subsidiary gables which are also later additions. This building now provides garaging for the four ground-floor flats and a communal laundry, with the first floor converted to a ninth flat on the site, 2A Dorset Street.

At the rear of the west block the property is fenced by a high concrete block wall, with the west wall painted white and the south wall left exposed. These walls protect a small communal garden with a lawn, rotary washing line and various plantings. Several of the trees may date to when the flats were constructed (the three conifers), some may date back to the construction of the brick stables (the tree on the west elevation of the garages). The asphalt parking at the rear of the east block is terminated by a short exposed concrete block wall with a hedge that runs perpendicular to the orientation of the flats. This wall and hedge disguise a bank of four wood boxes painted pale green with sloped, hinged doors; these date back to the construction of the flats and each wood box is assigned to one of the first floor flats.

The eight flats are planned in two near-identical off-set groups of two-storey rectangular blocks on concrete slab foundations on a damp-proof course. Each block contains four flats, two on the ground floor, two on the first floor, with each pair of flats on the one level bisected by a centrally placed external stair. As the Dorset Street Flats are one of the earliest local responses to New Brutalism, they set what became the standard local materials and construction methods of this mid-to-late modernist movement in architecture. As such, they are constructed in load-bearing white painted concrete block, with the ground floor walls stopping at door height and supporting 600mm concrete beams now painted dark-grey. Reinforced concrete columns embedded in the ground floor walls provide additional support. The flats are sheltered by timber-framed roofs covered with 24-gauge corrugated iron and a galvanised iron ridge. The roofs are set back from the edge of the building plane, with a narrow 8" x 1" (203x25mm) oregon bargeboard at the gable ends, originally finished with weatherproofing oil and now painted red, and the same width oregon fascia on the north and south elevations, now painted a soft pale green. Copper spouting and down pipes provide drainage from the set-back roof.

Each flat has two full-height glazed openings to the north. One is a split Dutch-barn timber-framed glazed door off the bedroom. The other is a generous sliding door off the living room, recessed within the building plane. As with all openings or insertions into the concrete block walls of the Dorset Street Flats, the windows and doors are set back behind the plane of the walls, an early example of the Christchurch School's "negative detailing" design approach. The timber-framed and glazed sliding doors are half the width of the living room and are suspended within steel frames with a black finish. All the sliding timber doors are unpainted and were originally clear-varnished. The living room sliding doors in the ground floor flats open up to enclosed garden courtyards while those on the first floor open to deep, recessed balconies. The first floor openings (of both bedroom and balcony) both have transoms formed from a single length of 9"x3" (228x76mm) board. The timber frames of the living room windows are the same proportions and composition as the sliding doors but the timber is painted a soft green. In each flat, above the timber-framed living room door and window is a row of four long, narrow unframed windows; of the pair above the fixed window, the centre one slides open, with a small, circular, recessed finger handle, the others are fixed. On the ground floor, these windows are greater in height than those on the first floor, as they fill the extra allowance of height given to the ground floor flats by the space created by the concrete beams. This same extra height in the ground floor bedrooms is filled with a long, narrow, fixed timber-framed window set into the depth of the beam.

The floors of the balconies are lined with concrete pavers. The balcony wall adjacent to the external stair is white painted concrete block; the other wall is lined with timber board and painted a rich red. On the ground floors, the glazed living room wall is also recessed deeply into the building. Within the recession, the wall adjacent to the external stair is white painted concrete block; the other wall is lined in two sections: closest to the window the wall has a narrow lining of timber board, painted red in all flats except for number 4 where it is painted white; the other section is a panel of timber-framed cladding with horizontal rusticated weatherboards, the same as the bathroom cladding on the side elevations, with a window above looking into the built in wardrobe; in all flats this timber cladding is painted pale green, except for that of number 4, which is painted pale grey.

On the side elevations, the gable ends are all of concrete block. Long, narrow openings in the walls on the first and ground floors indicate the position of the showers in the bathrooms; the slots are filled with a timber framework, clad with horizontal rusticated weatherboards, with a fixed window above. Above this is a perforation for ventilation, designed to be a permanent opening. On the first floor this is a horizontal slot set with a single glass louvre within weatherboards that runs the full height of the wall; on the ground floor it is an unglazed horizontal slot cut directly into the concrete beam. The bathroom walls are all painted pale green, except for number 14's on the west elevation, visible from the garden courtyard of number 4: the timber here is painted pale grey. Numbers 4 and 16 have additional kitchen windows with green painted frames that are set into the east elevations of each flat.

On the south elevation both first floor and ground floor flats have a long, narrow, red-painted steel sash window to the kitchen, with green-painted weatherboards above. On the ground floor flats there is an additional window above the timber cladding, within the space created by the concrete beam; in the same space created by the beam in the south wall of the living rooms of the ground floor flats is another, longer, narrow, green-painted steel-framed window. Yellow tiles that project out slightly from the wall plane are used to line many of the exterior sills of openings in the concrete block walls, including the front doors, the Dutch barn doors, the kitchen windows, and the bathroom cladding.

The two external stairs in the Dorset Street Flats are covered by the roof but are open to the exterior. They are constructed from open pre-cast concrete treads on steel pins set into the concrete block walls. A clear-varnished timber railing on the inside wall is held by curved brackets. The concrete columns in the walls at the base of the stairs are painted dark grey. The floor of the landing is lined with black and white linoleum tiles in a checkerboard pattern and the south elevation of the stairs is glazed and has a transom formed from a length of 9"x3" (228x76mm) timber board. The ceiling protecting the stairs is sloped and painted canary yellow.

The Dorset Street Flats are all organised according to one of two 450 square foot (137 square metre) floor plans which are mirror images of each other, making each block symmetrical. The main door opens onto a living room 20'x11' (6x3m), which runs the full length of the flat from south to north. The remainder is divided into three rooms: a small kitchen to the south, a bedroom to the north and a bathroom in between, accessed from the bedroom.

Although all the flats have the same facilities, there is a firm distinction between the ground floor flats and the first floor flats, that is, between the flats intended for the original owner-occupiers and those for their tenants. Many of the finishes and fittings on the ground floor are more extensive or of higher quality than those used on the first floor. In the living room the flats all have in-built rimu shelving on the south wall the full height of the wall, on the ground floor these shelves run the full width of the room and include two fold-down hinged doors, one folds down to form a writing desk the other conceals a drinks cabinet; on the first floor there is only shelving and it is half the width of the room. Three of the ground floor flats (numbers 2, 4 and 16) were installed with freestanding Norwegian Jotul stoves set on black Triton tiles, where the other five units have fireplaces with black tile hearths. The Jotul stove in flat number 4 has since been replaced by a pellet fire. The door separating the living room from the bedroom on the ground floor is a sliding door that fills a generous opening between the spaces; on the first floor there is a standard plywood door providing access between the rooms. All the other doors in the ground floor flats are custom-made tongue and groove rimu doors, with the bathroom door filling a particularly narrow space; all doors in the first floor flats, except the front doors, are standard plywood doors. All the doors in the ground floor flats are fitted with round doorknobs, where the first floor flats have standard lever handles. The extent of the architect's design refinement is shown in the way in which the handles on either side of the bathroom door are chosen to match the fittings in the respective rooms: the bedroom side of the door has a brass door handle, the bathroom side of the door has a chrome handle to match the chrome fittings of the bathroom. The flat ceilings in the ground floor units are all lined with 'dressed Rimu boards set with small gaps in between and varnished.' In contrast, the ceilings in the first floor flats follow the slope of the roof and are lined with pinex with timber battens. All the flats have a built-in rimu-framed wardrobe and drawers on the north wall, beside the Dutch-barn door. The section of the wardrobe above the drawers includes a recession with a mirror set on the north wall, this opening is covered with a small door on the first floor, on the ground floor flats this is left open, to let extra light into the room from a small side wall window. One advantage the first floor flats have is an extra storage space in the ceiling, accessed from the bedroom via a small door above the bathroom door.

Most of the other facilities are the same between the flats. The living room and bedroom floors are covered with cork tiles. The small kitchen includes built-in cupboards on the north wall, giving access to the hot water cylinder as well as storage space in a separate cupboard below. All flats have a small sink set into a formica bench under the south-facing window, above the window are built-in cabinets, which have sliding tempered hardboard doors and above the sink is a built-in dish-drying rack. The bathrooms are all the same: a small basin and toilet, with inbuilt cabinets above with sliding doors, and a built-in shower. Kitchen and bathroom floors are lined with black and white linoleum tiles in a checkerboard pattern.

While all of the flats still have many of their original fittings and finishes or the finishes described above there is variation between the individual flats and all have had some alterations.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1956 - 1957

Construction Details

Concrete block, reinforced concrete, timber, corrugated iron.

Completion Date

12th April 2010

Report Written By

J. Halliday, C. Whybrew

Information Sources

Clark, 2000

Justine Clark and Paul Walker, 'Looking for the Local: Architecture and the New Zealand Modern', Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2000

Home and Building

Home and Building

'Flats in Christchurch', vol. 21, no. 8, 1 January 1959, p 28-31, 79; vol. 22, no. 4, 1 September 1959, cover, pp. 2-3.

Lloyd Jenkins, 2004

Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, At Home: A Century of New Zealand Design. Auckland: Random House, 2004

Gatley, 2008

Julia Gatley (ed.), Long Live the Modern: New Zealand's New Architecture 1904-1984, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2008

Mitchell, 1984

Mitchell, David & Gillian Chaplin, The Elegant Shed: New Zealand architecture since 1945, Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1984.

Warren, 2008

M Warren, Miles Warren: an autobiography, University of Canterbury Press, Christchurch, 2008.

Warren and Mahoney Architects, 1989

Warren & Mahoney, Warren & Mahoney Architects 1958-1989, Warren & Mahoney, Christchurch, 1989.

Warren and Mahoney Architects, 2005

Warren & Mahoney Architects, New Territory: Warren & Mahoney: 50 years of New Zealand Architecture, Balasoglou Books, Auckland, 2005.

Conservation Plan

Conservation Plan

Warren and Mahoney Architects Ltd., 'The Northern Club: a conservation plan', Auckland, 1991(held by NZHPT, Auckland)

Other Information

A fully referenced copy of the registration report is available from the NZHPT Southern Region Office.

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.