Historical Significance or Value
The McLean Flats and Gordon Wilson Flats have historical significance for their association with the programme of state housing provision which became a mainstay of mid-twentieth century government policy, initiated by the first Labour government in 1935. Although not prevalent in the context of the state housing building programme, these types of high-density residential buildings demonstrate the Department of Housing Construction’s interest in a range of residential options to meet differing housing needs in various locations around the country, and in this instance as a response to Wellington’s population growth. The Gordon Wilson Flats is now the only remaining example of a state block of high-rise flats from the 1950s, and represents a turning point in the government’s experimentation with this typology of housing. This type of building paved the way for subsequent local government housing developments in New Zealand’s larger cities, altering ideas and expectations about what constituted inner-city living.
The McLean Flats have a commemorative aspect in that the name references the previous landowners and a family with notable historic associations with the city and the nation. Likewise, the Gordon Wilson Flats was named in honour of the long-standing and important Government Architect.
Architectural Significance or Value
The McLean Flats and Gordon Wilson Flats are significant examples of New Zealand Modernist architecture, which is evident in the external treatment, plan form and functionalism of both buildings. The buildings retain high levels of authenticity and integrity, with only minor alterations to the exterior and interior of each building; most notably the enclosure of the open porches on the north elevation of the McLean Flats. While McLean Flats follows the 1930s European Modernist approach evident in the Berhampore Flats and the Dixon Street Flats, Gordon Wilson Flats, as would be expected given its 1950s pedigree, adopts the rectilinear simplicity of International Style Modernism of the post-war era, its maisonette configuration plainly readable in its facade. Both buildings clearly embody the progressive idealism of the government’s housing department as well as the government’s official architectural style at mid-century, and together demonstrate that they were informed by the latest thinking in European Modernism. They are held in esteem by members of New Zealand’s architectural heritage community because they exemplify the progressive policies and design practices of central government in supplying social housing in the middle decades of the twentieth century.
Technological Significance or Value
Gordon Wilson Flats have technological significance as the site of innovative and important seismic data collection equipment and testing, which provided information on building performance in the quest for developing better ways of construction in earthquake-prone New Zealand. The Gordon Wilson Flats’ piling system has technological significance because it was reportedly the first use in New Zealand of the technique of fixing piles to bedrock, by pre-drilling holes to varying lengths to fill with reinforcement, aggregate and then with wet mixed sand and cement, to deal with the challenges of a hillside site in a seismic location.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
The McLean Flats and Gordon Wilson Flats reflect the important history of social housing provision in New Zealand, an aspect that has influenced our culture and identity. The two buildings authentically represent central government’s experimental approach to housing design throughout the twentieth century, both in terms of style, plan form and building technology, and schemes of increased density. The Gordon Wilson Flats, in particular, is the only remaining example in New Zealand of late 1950s high-rise state housing, and as such is of outstanding significance for its ability to reflect that chapter in New Zealand’s history. It is also thought to have been New Zealand’s first comprehensively instrumented building, an innovation championed at the time of being of national importance for its potential to inform the country’s seismic engineering industry.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history
The McLean Flats and Gordon Wilson Flats are directly associated with the principles and philosophy of the social welfare state as it was developed by the first Labour government and continued post-war by the first National government as they responded to housing and materials shortages. They directly represent the Department of Housing Construction's adoption of mid-century Modernist architectural principles, under the direction of influential architect Gordon Wilson, who became the Government Architect and was later commemorated in the naming of one of the buildings. Wilson and Fred Newman (architect of the McLean Flats) both served as heads of the Housing department, and both had a particular appreciation for the relationship between Modern architecture and progressive political and social ideals. McLean Flats and Gordon Wilson Flats have special significance as representatives of the important culture of state housing in New Zealand and as physical expressions from different decades of the longstanding and competing ideas about what good quality housing looks like.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place
The Gordon Wilson Flats are highly esteemed by members of the architectural heritage community, represented by the Architectural Centre, DOCOMOMO NZ and others, as repeatedly demonstrated through submission and hearing processes, articles, presentations and other advocacy for the building’s retention. The 2017 Environment Court decision, which confirmed the Gordon Wilson Flats’ heritage significance as successfully presented by many experts from this community, was pivotal in raising public awareness of the building’s heritage values and promoting wider appreciation of Modernist architecture.
(g) The technical accomplishment, value, or design of the place
The McLean Flats and Gordon Wilson Flats demonstrate contemporary earthquake-resistant construction methods and materials. The Gordon Wilson Flats are particularly notable for the piling system used to mitigate the challenges of the site (fixing piles to bedrock was reportedly a New Zealand first, subsequently widely adopted), and the installation of strain gauges and accelerographs in the building to provide information about regional earthquakes and their impact on building performance.
The McLean Flats and Gordon Wilson Flats are both exemplars of the influence of distinct veins of Modernism on twentieth-century New Zealand architecture. With the McLean Flats, the solidity of the smooth, planar wall surfaces contrasting with voids created by the window openings, and originally the open porches, coupled with the distinctive façade curve further emphasised by cantilevered brise-soleils are characteristics of the elegant Modernist architectural ideals first explored in New Zealand in the 1930s. In contrast, the scale and architectural articulation of the Gordon Wilson Flats situates it as a benchmark Modern work in New Zealand as it evolved following World War Two. Its prominent, rational, gridded front elevation facing out over the city, against the backdrop of lush bush, was as important a monument of mid-century International Style Modernism in the Wellington cityscape as the new commercial edifices rising in the CBD, such as Massey House. The contrast of the transparency of the glazed stairwell on the south end and the striking form of the nearly independent lift shaft on the north demonstrate not just a capable handling of Modernism, but a sophisticated and creative expression of the design mode.
(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place
Both buildings have some commemorative value that is embodied in their names. The McLean Flats commemorate the site’s previous landowners and acknowledge the McLean family’s contribution to New Zealand history. The Gordon Wilson Flats has special commemorative significance as a relatively rare memorial to an architect, being named in honour of the Government Architect who oversaw the design of both buildings and served a key role in public service for over twenty years, shaping New Zealand’s state housing design since the 1930s. As high-density housing was a special interest of Gordon Wilson’s, the Gordon Wilson Flats are a particularly apt building to be named in his honour.
(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places
The majority of social housing residences built by the New Zealand government since the first boom period of the 1930s have been in the form of single-unit detached houses, with forays into duplex or medium-density complexes. High-density tower blocks of flats account for a very small percentage of the overall number of state houses constructed, and were only ever built in our major cities. The Gordon Wilson Flats has special heritage values as the only remaining example of late-1950s high-rise state housing design in New Zealand. It is a rare physical-historical link to an uncommon aspect of the government’s response to the policies, economics, design philosophies and social concerns of the 1950s.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural area
In tandem with the nearby Dixon Street Flats, the McLean Flats and Gordon Wilson Flats are part of a historical and cultural area in inner-city Wellington that demonstrates the philosophy and implementation of mid-twentieth century state housing development in the capital city. The relationship of the buildings with examples of high- and medium-density social housing built by Wellington City Council in the near vicinity is also important as this context allows analysis of the ways that local government extended the exploration of housing models begun by central government.
Summary of Significance or Values
The McLean Flats and Gordon Wilson Flats have special architectural and outstanding historical significance as two distinct examples of multi-storey state housing rental flats within a complex built by central government in the middle of the twentieth century. The situation of the two buildings from different decades on one site clearly represents the evolution of the European Modernist architectural approach adopted by the Department of Housing Construction in the 1940s and 1950s, united in their design by Gordon Wilson’s oversight of government architectural design between 1936 and 1959. The buildings both have associations with architects who had a major impact on the design of social housing: Frederick Newman, who led the housing department in the 1960s, and Gordon Wilson, who is considered one of the country’s most prominent, talented and influential architects. The Gordon Wilson Flats is a fitting memorial to Wilson and his outstanding contribution to New Zealand architecture, reflecting his particular interest in high-density housing and inner-city living as a way to address urban sprawl and ensure economical use of high-value land. The Gordon Wilson Flats has been the focus of considerable public debate about the heritage values of Modernist buildings over the last decade. It has galvanised the architectural community to publicly promote the values of Modernist architecture and demonstrate their esteem for the Gordon Wilson Flats as New Zealand’s only remaining example of the government’s particular 1950s response to housing issues, and the technological and architectural values of that period that it embodies.
Legendary voyager Kupe is said to have explored the length of the west coast of the North Island and named geographical features in Wellington harbour. Following permanent settlement, the rangatira Tara, son of Whātonga and the eponymous ancestor of Ngāi Tara, settled at the harbour, which came to be known as Te Whanganui-a-Tara (the great harbour of Tara). In the seventeenth century Ngāti Ira of Hawke’s Bay joined Ngāi Tara; Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne, Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Māmoe also settled in the region. Later, in the 1820s and early 1830s, Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama moved to Wellington from Taranaki. When the colonial settlement of Wellington commenced in 1839 land acquisition by the New Zealand Company, and then the Crown, alienated land from its Māori owners. Place names, such as Te Aro, convey the cultural landscape on which the modern city has developed.
Town Sections 440 and 441 in Woolcombe Street, the future site of McLean Flats and Gordon Wilson Flats, were granted to Robert Strang (section 440) and R. and J.M. Stokes (section 441) in 1853 and 1856 respectively, although both properties had been settled by 1842. Robert Stokes built a house called ‘St Ruadhan’ and the Strang family named theirs ‘Dalmuir Hill’.
Donald McLean (1820-77) married Robert Strang’s daughter Susan at ‘Dalmuir Hill’ in 1851, subsequently becoming the property’s owner. McLean acquired ‘St Ruadhan’ in 1895. McLean’s son Douglas (aka Douglas Maclean, 1852-1929) inherited both properties from his father and ‘St Ruadhan’ became his town house when he was not in residence on his farm ‘Maraekakaho’ in Hawke’s Bay. Douglas McLean, knighted in 1927, was a Member of Parliament and noted animal breeder. The contents of McLean’s two Wellington houses were put up for auction in August 1941, following the death of his wife Lady Florence in 1940. Eventually both dwellings were demolished to make way for the site’s redevelopment by the government.
State housing flats
The first Labour government initiated a programme of state housing construction after it was elected in 1935. There had been previous government housing schemes, such as under the Workers’ Dwelling Act of 1905 and by the Railways Department for staff. However, the first Labour government’s programme represented state housing’s ‘first boom period’. Houses and, to a lesser extent, flats were built throughout New Zealand to increase both the nation’s housing stock and the quality. Although the English cottage style was the dominant mode for the design of early state houses, the impact of Modernism was also felt in some single-family and duplex dwellings and it was to provide the basis for the government’s apartment buildings, beginning with the Berhampore (Centennial) Flats in 1939-40.
After a brief initial period when private architects provided designs, the Department of Housing Construction (DHC) undertook the planning of state houses and flats and oversaw their construction. Architects within the DHC, led by chief architect Francis Gordon Wilson (1900-59) between 1936 and 1948, were interested in the aesthetic and societal potential of European Modernist architecture to create high quality living environments that made a positive contribution to urban form. Modernism was also attractive to architects and builders because its emphasis on planar form over applied ornament was an economical response to contemporary material and labour shortages.
Although it was thought that ‘in a country such as New Zealand … the detached house is the ideal’, apartment buildings and blocks of flats were erected by the government because they could achieve higher residential densities than single-family state houses, accommodate the shortages brought about by the Second World War, and also, in some settings, facilitate urban renewal through slum clearance. Notwithstanding these advantages, the early multi-storey blocks of state flats were more expensive to build per unit than single-family state houses; as a result tenants of the flats were charged a higher rental. Through newspaper advertisements and opinion pieces, the Labour government worked to counter the prevailing negative public opinion that equated the term ‘flats’ with ‘a tall barracks-like structure with poor accommodation and poor appearance’.
Tenancy of state housing accommodation was achieved by applying to the State Advances Corporation. Typically only a small number of applicants specified a preference for a flat over a house. It was generally assumed that the flats would house childless couples and single people, but the provision of two-bedroom units clearly signalled they were intended for family occupancy. Priority access to state housing, including flats, was given to ex-servicemen and women even before the war had ended.
The DHC, which had been established in 1936, was renamed the Housing Division of the Ministry of Works (MOW) in 1943. By 1949, when it lost power, the Labour government had built a total of 13 blocks of flats in Auckland and Wellington; five of these were multi-storey buildings. This accounted for around 1.5 per cent of the total number of state residences constructed. Medium-density blocks of flats were also built in a number of urban centres around the country in the late 1950s; an example of this typology was the Rolleston Street Flats of 1955 in Mount Cook, Wellington.
Meanwhile a National Housing Conference held in 1953 reframed government housing policy to some extent, placing a greater emphasis upon private provision of affordable houses for purchase by families. The Group Housing Scheme was the primary vehicle developed by the first National government to increase single-family home numbers, but ‘encouragement [was] also being given to the building of blocks of residential flats’. High-density housing was seen by the government at this time as a step ‘to arrest the urban sprawl’ and ‘stop abnormal use of first-class land close to built-up areas.’ To that end it was reported in 1955 that ‘[t]he Government is proceeding with the building of large blocks of multi-story flats in Wellington and Auckland, each to contain 80 two-level two-bedroom maisonette flats, and smaller blocks in other cities both for rental and sale’. After the completion of the Gordon Wilson Flats and Auckland’s Upper Greys Avenue Flats in the late 1950s, central government abandoned such high-density housing models, favouring instead single-family and medium-density, low-rise residential forms. Nevertheless high-density social housing developments were still being built in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, by local, rather than central, government.
The concentration of state rental flat construction in Wellington is an expression of the growth of the capital city in the mid-twentieth century within an environment in which building sites were limited by both the topography and historic development of the inner suburbs.
Named in honour of the previous landowners, the McLean (State) Flats were erected in 1943-44 by the first Labour government. Minister of Housing Robert Semple announced in February 1943 that the McLean estate on The Terrace had been purchased by the government for housing purposes; construction of the first block of what was to be a staged work programme was under way by late April 1943. The government had been criticised for the exclusive provision of one-bedroom units in the Dixon Street Flats (1940-44), so of the McLean Flats’ 18 flats five were two-bedroom units.
The lead architect for the project was Frederick Newman (1900-1964), although Ernst Anton Plischke was involved in preparing the original design concept for the site. Born in Vienna as Frederich Neumann, Newman came to New Zealand as a refugee in 1939 and gained work in various government departments, starting with the DHC. McLean Flats may have been the first major project he completed, in a career which later saw him appointed the Ministry of Work’s Housing Architect, and a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Architects. Like other émigré architects, Newman imported European experience and the Modernist approach and principles to architecture. Newman brought strong socialist ideals to his design work, contributing through government housing projects to the realisation of ‘New Zealand as a field for ideological experimentation’. As Housing Architect from 1956 a particular focus of Newman’s was to ‘provide socially responsive proposals for medium- and high-density rental accommodation’; designs for the Star Flats and various duplex and multi-unit flats, and also a change in appearance of state houses, date from his tenure.
The McLean Flats were built under war-time provisions for essential works. In 1943 it was expected that the building would provide temporary dormitory accommodation for Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) members before becoming state rental accommodation. In the event the WAAF’s and WAAC’s were housed elsewhere, although one of the two historic houses on the site was briefly used as a mess before being converted into two temporary flats for use by large families; this building was later demolished to make way for the Gordon Wilson Flats.
The McLean Flats were built by W. Angus Limited from reinforced concrete with ‘special attention to earthquake resistance’. Two earthquakes centred near Masterton that occurred on 24 June and 2 August of 1942 caused extensive damage in Wellington and were a reminder of the need for earthquake-resistant construction in the city. The 1929 Murchison and 1931 Hawkes’ Bay earthquakes had already led to changes to the law in regard to earthquake-resistant construction, which was embodied in the 1935 building code.
By September 1944 the flats were almost ready for occupation. Among the early residents of the McLean Flats was Helen Heketa, the mother of Private John Heketa of the 28th Māori Battalion who died in Italy on 23 September 1944. Mrs Heketa also appears to have been the widow of an ex-serviceman and, therefore, was likely to have been on the priority list for state housing.
McLean Flats featured in the 1946 film Housing in New Zealand as representing ‘the forms of future cities – tall, white buildings rising out of the past’. The film documents the desperate need for housing at the time, complicated by difficulties obtaining construction materials due to post-war shortages. McLean Flats was used as an example of state housing which catered to those who wanted, or needed, to be in the hustle and bustle of the city; but it was also acknowledged that this was not everyone’s ideal. The flats were also illustrated in Cedric Firth’s 1949 booklet State Housing in New Zealand, for which Gordon Wilson chose the illustrations, although the text makes no mention of the building.
Gordon Wilson Flats
The second, somewhat delayed, stage of development undertaken on the former McLean estate involved the erection of the Gordon Wilson Flats. Although a high-rise scheme of similar scale for the site had been published in the Evening Post in 1943, the design was finalised during the term of the first National government (1949-57), by which time wartime building restrictions had been lifted but concern about the negative impacts of suburban sprawl was increasing.
The Gordon Wilson Flats are a redesign of the block originally planned to extend the McLean Flats. Plans dated May 1947 show the intention at that time was to build a curved link containing six flats between the rear of the McLean Flats and a new L-shaped block containing 52 flats in total. This did not eventuate and by 1954 the design had been reduced to a single narrow building, with major similarities to the block being designed in tandem for the Upper Grey’s Avenue site in Auckland.
The project had resumed in 1953, and working drawings for stage two of the Terrace Flats were signed off by Gordon Wilson, now the Government Architect, in August 1954; the local district office then undertook the detailed design work for the building. MOW architect Jack Wight appears to have been responsible for the technical design. Wellington District Architect for the MOW with oversight of the project was John Blake-Kelly, who later served as the Government Architect; MOW Clerk of Works was R. Patterson. Private contractors Downer & Company Limited (est. 1933), and McKenzie Thomson Hoskins Limited were awarded the contract; foreman of works was W. Christensen.
The piling system used in the Gordon Wilson Flats was reportedly a New Zealand first; the challenging hillside site and the presence of fill necessitated piling to rock, with the longest piles being 14.6 metres in length. Pre-drilled holes were filled with reinforcement and aggregate and then filled with wet mixed sand and cement, left to set for a few months. The maisonette design was adopted because of advantages such as the timber flooring between the two levels of the maisonettes reducing the overall load of the building on its foundations.
Construction delays meant that the foundation stone was not laid by Dean Eyre, Minister of Housing, until 6 August 1957. The Labour government returned to power in December of the same year. Gordon Wilson died suddenly in February 1959, and before the flats were finally opened in mid-1959 a decision was made to name them in his honour. The total cost of the build was given as £372,000 in July 1959.
Open days held in the first week of April 1959 were poorly attended and those who inspected the units complained that there was inadequate storage, no room for a refrigerator or a washing machine in the kitchen, and that the open staircase in the living room would make the maisonettes draughty and hard to heat. In the same month screening was undertaken of the 644 applications received for the 86 units available in the building (a flat for the caretaker was in addition to this number). While it had been determined by mid-May who was to be offered each of the twelve bedsits, there were initially only 30 approvals for the two-bedroom maisonettes. With a relaxation of both the maximum income threshold and requirements around sufficiency of income to cover the rent, a total of 45 approvals had been reached by the end of the month. Although a ballot was signalled as a possibility to select tenants if the building was heavily oversubscribed it does not appear that one was ever held, although by the end of 1959 there was a waiting list.
After some delays finishing the building to the government’s satisfaction, the flats were released to the State Advances Corporation for occupancy by tenants from 5 June 1959; the caretaker Gerald Higson had earlier uplifted keys for Flat 103 on 9 May. Contrary to the prevailing notion that social housing was built for low-income individuals and families, rents were higher than usual for these state housing units on the basis of the cost of construction and future maintenance requirements, and the accommodation was aimed at workers and middle-income earners. The government felt that the location of the flats would be attractive to prospective tenants and facilitate savings for them in travel time and expenditure.
Foundation tenants photographed by the Evening Post as they were moving into the flats in mid-June 1959 included Mrs C. Glennie, a widow with two teenage daughters who originally hailed from Scotland, and Mr and Mrs W. Shaw and their two young sons. The bedsits were originally allocated to single working women over 45 years of age and two-bedroom maisonettes were assigned to families, some led by single mothers. Urban historian Ben Schrader notes that ‘numerous single men had applied for the bedsitter flats even though they were ineligible and many couples had applied for the maisonettes in the view of marrying after finding suitable accommodation…the occupational profile of tenants was diverse and included: milkmen, bakers, [a] plumber, clerks and civil servants.’ Schrader considers that this offers ‘a rare and fascinating perspective on how a socially diverse mix of tenants lived alongside each other and negotiated social relations in a high-density environment’. In later years some tenants complained about the noise from neighbours’ children, but there were few demands for transfers. Many tenants were particularly appreciative of having their own bathrooms, after years of shared facilities in rooming-houses.
Gas water heating was initially installed to demonstrate supply advantages at a time when security of supply for electricity was under increasing pressure. The system resulted in higher construction costs and was replaced in two stages (1962 and 1968) by electricity when the gas heaters’ ignition mechanism and flues did not meet the required performance standards and were causing health concerns.
The Gordon Wilson Flats was the first building in New Zealand to be comprehensively instrumented for seismic engineering research. Seismic monitoring equipment–strain gauges and strong-motion accelerographs–was installed by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) at the time of the building’s construction; the strain gauges likely still remain in the foundations. The equipment was a precursor to the accelerographs installed in a range of building types by the DSIR from 1963 onwards. These instruments provided useful information and field experience for DSIR scientists, as well as being of interest to the leader of Japan’s institutes of seismic research in high-rise construction, Toshihiko Hisada. Scientific papers were published with reference to the data collected in the building and the development for commercial sale, both nationally and internationally, of the M.O.2 Accelerograph by DSIR staff in the mid-1960s could be considered an outcome of the programme of scientific seismic measurement. The strong motion accelerograph provided information pertaining to building performance in the event of an earthquake and thus created a New Zealand-specific data set for engineers wanting to assess ‘earthquake resistance in large structures’ during earthquakes. As the DSIR director of the research stated:
‘There is no question of the value of the results that can accrue from this very long-term undertaking. The loss to New Zealand from a large earthquake is gigantic. We are using the Terrace Flats not to find how the Terrace Flats would behave for their own sake but to find how to make all future buildings in New Zealand safe against earthquakes.’
Engineering research continued in 1964 when the Gordon Wilson Flats was subjected to forced-vibration testing. This is thought to have been the first building in New Zealand in which this physical testing – vital as a comparison with laboratory tests – occurred.
Described by architectural historian Nikolas Pevsner as ‘particularly interesting’, the Gordon Wilson Flats featured in the Architectural Review in October 1959 as part of Pevsner’s review of commonwealth architecture. Pevsner had visited New Zealand in 1958 and was hosted by the Architectural Centre during his stay in Wellington. In February 1961 the Wellington District Branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects featured the Gordon Wilson Flats in their journal. A photograph of the building in the 1975 history of the MOW was used to illustrate high density housing provision by the state.
Nonetheless, by the late 1950s the government’s focus had already shifted away from vertical flats towards low-rise medium-density housing (blocks no higher than three storeys), with these accounting for 54 percent of all units built in 1960. A decade later the design focus had swung further towards single units, with only 11.9 percent being multi-units. After the Gordon Wilson Flats and Upper Greys Avenue Flats, the construction of high-rise blocks of state flats stalled for 60 years, although with more New Zealanders now considering medium and high-density inner city living as a desirable option, and increased concerns about urban sprawl, in 2020 Kāinga Ora (Housing New Zealand Corporation) is again employing this urban design solution on the Upper Greys Avenue site.
Recent history of the flats
After decades of residential use, the McLean and Gordon Wilson Flats were vacated in 2011 and 2012 respectively after the buildings were identified as being potentially earthquake-prone and in need of remedial work; the façade of Gordon Wilson Flats was deemed particularly unsafe. Residents were given a week to move out; some expressed their distress and sentimental attachment to the place (‘This is my castle, I love it here’), while others noted issues with anti-social tenants and a lack of building maintenance. The Gordon Wilson Flats were purchased by Victoria University of Wellington from Kāinga Ora in 2014; purchase of the McLean Flats by the university took place in 2019. In June 2018 building consent for redevelopment of the McLean Flats, including seismic strengthening, refurbishment of the existing units and a three-storey extension, was lodged with Wellington City Council (WCC) but not yet actioned.
Since late 2015 the heritage status of the Gordon Wilson Flats and the university’s desire to redevelop the site as a whole to create a pedestrian link between the city centre and its Kelburn campus has been under discussion, and subject to a planning hearing in 2015 and Environment Court proceedings in 2016-2017. The latter was led by the Architectural Centre, who successfully argued that Gordon Wilson Flats’ significant heritage values merited its inclusion in the Wellington City District plan heritage schedule. Expert advocates described the building as being ‘a prominent marker of an alternative vision’; ‘a remarkable example of a heroic period of modern architecture in New Zealand’; and ‘the most developed form of its type…thus an architectural milestone in New Zealand.’
Despite this endorsement of the building’s significance by the Environment Court, arguments for and against the building’s architectural quality and heritage values have continued to be put forward in the public domain, highlighting in part conflicting views about the merits of Modernist architecture in terms of its aesthetic and functional qualities. In July 2020 Victoria University announced plans to refurbish the McLean Flats and demolish the Gordon Wilson Flats to make way for new teaching and research facilities and create an entrance plaza for the campus that overlooks the site.
The McLean Flats and Gordon Wilson Flats are located on a large property, comprising two contiguous land parcels, on the west side of The Terrace, just north of its intersection with Ghuznee Street. Beyond the town belt hillside that forms the western boundary of the site is the main/Kelburn campus of Victoria University of Wellington. The commercial centre of Wellington is to the north and north-east of the site; to the south is the residential suburb of Aro Valley. The streetscape in the vicinity of the flats is primarily residential in nature; the landmark Dixon Street Flats (List No. 7395, Category 1 historic place) are located about 300 metres away to the north-east.
The contextual values of the McLean Flats and Gordon Wilson Flats arise from their height and location set against the town belt on the western fringe of the central city. The topography of Wellington lends itself to extended views across the city, to and from Wellington Harbour. The McLean Flats and Gordon Wilson Flats offer views of the city from their primary rooms and have a contextual relationship with the nearby Dixon Street Flats.
The buildings are prominent within the streetscape at the southern end of The Terrace, and visible from various points around the city such as Mt Victoria and Roseneath. The scale of Gordon Wilson Flats in the wider cityscape is somewhat mitigated by its siting back against the hillside.
McLean Flats - Exterior
The McLean Flats stand close to the road boundary of the property; it is a six-storey building with a rectangular footprint and flat roof. The principal, north and east-facing, elevations meet at a rounded corner; a rank of five oriel windows with cantilevered hoods overhang the principal entry to the building, which is sheltered by the corner bay and a slab roofed porch. Timber-framed casement windows are arranged in groups; on the north elevation what were once in-line balconies with window boxes are now bays of slightly rounded oriel windows. Galleries providing access to the upper level flats are at the rear (south elevation) of the building. The principal stairwell for the building is located at its south-east corner. There is a flat-roofed laundry shed on the roof, which is also fitted with clotheslines.
McLean Flats – Interiors
The building accommodates eighteen flats, which are dispersed across six levels in accordance with the sloping terrain of the site. There is one flat on the ground floor, two on the first floor, three on the second, and four on each of the third, fourth and fifth floors. Only the ground floor flat is a bedsit, with the remainder having one or two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, living room and sunroom. The mid-block and western flats have one-bedroom, while the flats at the east end of the building have two bedrooms and a separate combined kitchen-dining room set within the curved space created by the corner oriel window. All bathrooms provide enough space to accommodate a laundry tub and washing machine; the kitchens are U-shaped in plan with wall-mounted and under-counter cupboards. The enclosed balconies on the north elevation now have the appearance of a sunroom adjacent to the living room. Casement windows in the bedroom directly behind the sunroom bring light into that space from the latter. There are rubbish chute access hatches on each floor beside the concrete steps in the stair tower. Additional egress from the building is provided by an external timber stair at the west end of the building. Except for preparations for renovations in some flats, the majority remain intact.
Gordon Wilson Flats - Exterior
The Gordon Wilson Flats stand against the hill at the rear of the site; it is an eleven-storey building with a rectangular footprint and flat roof. The principal, east-facing, elevation has a uniform, grid pattern design that articulates the maisonette configuration of bedrooms above balconied living rooms; this treatment was considered to be expressive of the ‘cellular character of the building’. The east elevation is not perfectly symmetrical as the bay over the main entry to the building has balconies that extend the full width of the flat within. This subtle difference in façade modulation corresponds with the position of the lift tower towards the northern end of the building and reflects an alternate layout for the flats within this bay, wherein the kitchen is accessed from the living room, rather than the entrance hall, which is the arrangement in all the other flats above the ground floor, bedsit level. The perimeter is fenced off to protect from the hazards of the site, including the risk from falling chunks of the concrete façade, evident on the ground surrounding the building.
The thin slab form of the Gordon Wilson Flats means that the width of the building accommodates a single flat, allowing daylight to enter all of the principal spaces within each unit. The north-south axis of the building provides for afternoon sun entering the access galleries and second bedroom above, whilst morning sun and expansive views of the city centre and Wellington harbour are available from the principal bedroom and living room on the east elevation.
At the rear of the building (west elevation) access galleries run the length of the building, alternating levels with the external wall of the second bedroom within. Short slab buttresses extend from the ground up to third floor level to provide additional stiffening; on the ground floor these elements partially shelter the steps providing rear entry to the bedsits. Glazed external stairwells are located at both ends of the building (north and south elevations). There is a flat-roofed laundry shed on the roof, which is also fitted with clotheslines. Two elevators located within a lift tower at the rear of the building (west elevation, near the northern end) provide access to the galleries and the roof deck.
Gordon Wilson Flats – Interior
Twelve bedsitting rooms on the ground floor and 75 two-storey, two-bedroom 64 square-metre maisonette flats on the remaining floors provided 87 units in total. The main entry to the building provides access to the lift tower and accommodates mailboxes, two telephone cabinets and access to a custodian’s office. The foundation stone of the building is located within the tiled entrance porch.
Five of the maisonettes, adjacent to the lift tower, are of the double-bedroom and single-bedroom type, with the remainder accommodating two double-bedrooms. An internal ‘spine’ wall provides longitudinal stiffening of the structure; this can be seen in the ‘riser’ services duct between the bedrooms on the upper level of the maisonettes.
Beside the entrance to each of the maisonettes is a fire ladder positioned to provide safe egress from the second bedroom in each unit via a hatch set into the floor. With the exception of the flats adjacent to the lift tower, the entrance door provides access to a short hall off which open the west-facing kitchen and east-facing living room. Stairs to the second floor rise directly from the living room, which has a door in the east wall providing access to the balcony. The bathroom on the upper level is positioned between the two bedrooms, both of which have built-in storage. The bedsits on the ground floor have front and rear entries, with a galley kitchen and bathroom positioned beside the back (west) door.
The building has suffered considerably from vandalism since its closure. Much of the interior metal work (riser pipes, hot water cylinders and general plumbing, kitchen benches) has been stripped out, although kitchen cabinetry and bathroom fixtures remain in place, albeit damaged in some flats. Broken windows have allowed weather and pigeons to enter some units. Others remain dry, tidy and intact, with occasional reminders of the people who used to live there.
The primary heritage values of the McLean Flats and Gordon Wilson Flats relate to their place in the history of social housing provision since 1935 and their Modernist architectural pedigree as multi-storey apartment buildings.
Gordon Wilson was chief architect of the government housing department during what historian Roslyn Noonan calls ‘its most successful period’, as nearly 35,000 state dwellings were built. Wilson is described as having had ‘a strong influence on all the work of the architectural office… Gordon would do the rounds each morning, leaving behind him black pencil marks over drawings and many irate architects.’ Noonan states that during his subsequent tenure as Government Architect, a period described as when ‘office buildings, schools, hospitals, post offices, flats and hotels flowed from the Ministry of Works, free of inhibitions and expressing the best thoughts of contemporary design’… ‘[Wilson] was more concerned with public buildings than housing with the exception of high-density flats which were his special interest.’ Wilson, who was made a fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Architects in 1951 and an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1954, saw his role as including the education of public opinion on good design.
After World War Two the government’s architectural department was strongly committed to International Style Modernism. The monolithic tower block form of the Gordon Wilson Flats, with its ancestry in the Dixon Street Flats, corresponded with contemporaneous design of public buildings from the Government Architect’s office, as well as private commercial high-rise developments. Bledisloe House, in Auckland (completed 1959), and the School of Dentistry at Otago University (1959, List No. 7618) were both designed by the Ministry of Works around the same time as the Gordon Wilson and Upper Greys Avenue Flats, and share the narrow, multi-storey form, gridded façade and semi-detached lift tower. Gordon Wilson Flats shows the increasing emphasis on fully glazed elevations as New Zealand Modernism progressed towards the full glass curtain-wall, first realised in commercial developments such as Plischke and Firth’s 1952 Massey House (List No. 7661).
Although Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation in Marseille, France (1947-52) and the London County Council’s Loughborough Estate (Sir Leslie Martin, 1954-57) in Brixton, England have been mentioned by others as specifically inspiring the design of the Gordon Wilson Flats, it is probably more accurate to characterise both the McLean Flats and the Gordon Wilson Flats as New Zealand examples of mid-century high-density social housing designed using a Modernist approach.
There are currently three state housing blocks of flats entered on the New Zealand Heritage List/ Rārangi Kōrero (the List): the Berhampore Flats (List No. 7432, Category 1 historic place) and the Dixon Street Flats (List No. 7395, Category 1 historic place) in Wellington and the (Lower) Greys Avenue Flats (List No. 583, Category 2 historic place) in Auckland. The Berhampore Flats are considered to have outstanding heritage value as the ‘inaugural multi-unit scheme in a vast State housing scheme that was dominated by detached and semi-detached houses and flats’ ; the Dixon Street Flats are equally highly regarded as they are ‘considered to be the archetype of Modernist apartment blocks in New Zealand’. Auckland’s Symonds Street Flats (1942-47) and Wellington’s Hanson Street Flats (1943-44) date from the same time period as the McLean Flats.
The McLean and Gordon Wilson Flats can be said to represent a continuation of the policies and practices set in train by the Berhampore and Dixon Street Flats. The most relevant high-density state-housing comparators are the Lower and Upper Greys Avenue Flats, which were also part of a larger high-density government scheme interrupted by the war. The Upper Greys Avenue Flats (1957-58) can be considered a ‘sibling’ building to the Gordon Wilson Flats; the two were designed in tandem and comprise a narrow slab block of eleven storeys of mostly two-storey maisonettes. With their taller, slimmer design, reduced mass and more extensive glazing and facades that revealed the maisonette configuration, both show the evolution in government design from the pre-war high-rise blocks of flats. With the demolition of the Upper Greys Avenue Flats in January 2020, the Gordon Wilson Flats are now the sole remaining example of the state’s 1950s investment in high-density high-rise state housing. Kāinga Ora is currently redeveloping the site of the Upper Greys Avenue Flats to provide 276 apartments in a multi-level high-rise building, indicating the continued usefulness of the typology in certain locations within the department’s housing portfolio.
The Gordon Wilson Flats also represent a turning point in the New Zealand government’s experiment with high density housing. For reasons of policy (National governments promoted private home ownership), finances (high-rise flats were not that cost effective to build), a change in the perception of ‘problems’ like urban sprawl, and the rise of car ownership and commuter culture, the central government pursuit of this form of housing ceased for 60 years after Gordon Wilson Flats and the Upper Greys Avenue Flats were built. This type of housing was still viewed by town planners as an alternative to inner city housing shortages, but the lead on this was taken up by local authorities and private developers. For example, the Freeman’s Bay development undertaken by Auckland City Council in 1960-67 and over a dozen large-scale developments carried out by the WCC between 1955 and 1985 took over the provision of high-density rental flats from central government. WCC’s Hanson Court Flats (1963-68), Central Park Flats (1964-70), Newtown Park Flats (1965-78), Arlington Apartments (1971-84), and Berkeley Dallard Apartments (1971/5-80) all include high-rise tower blocks.
A number of purpose-built flats recognised for their outstanding heritage significance were built as private residential developments. Courtville in Auckland (List Nos. 2624 and 4487, Category 1 historic places) is recognised for its very early date (1914-15 & 1919), architectural styling and townscape impact, whilst the Dorset Street Flats in Christchurch (1956-57, List No. 7804) are acclaimed as one of the ‘most important domestic buildings built in New Zealand in the second half of the twentieth century’. The Anscombe Flats (List No. 1333) and former Braemar Flats (List No. 1341) in Wellington, the Devonport Flats in New Plymouth (List No. 890), and the Berrisville Flats (List No. 554) and Cintra Flats (List No. 564) in Auckland, all Category 2 historic places, are architecturally designed examples of a residential typology that historically only ever found minority support within the overall housing supply in New Zealand, but which is growing in popularity as a solution to present housing needs. The scale and form of the Gordon Wilson Flats was a forerunner to two privately constructed high-rise flats built further along The Terrace in the 1960s: the 13-storey Herbert Gardens, completed in 1965, and the 18-storey Jellicoe Towers, completed in 1968.
The two-level, maisonette plan form, which is a distinctive feature of the Gordon Wilson Flats (and the Upper Grey’s Avenue Flats before they were demolished), is not common in New Zealand apartment buildings but can be found in Christchurch’s Maisonettes in Bealey Avenue (1939-41), the Hazel Court Flats in Mt Victoria, Wellington (1954-56), and at Freeman’s Bay. Early criticism of the open stair leading to the upper floor of the maisonettes in the Gordon Wilson Flats offers one reason why the plan form was not more widely used for central and local government rental flats, although it was noted to be more economical. Maisonette configuration is being considered anew in present housing developments, suggesting that its relatively rare employment in the Gordon Wilson Flats was somewhat progressive rather than being a dead-end design scheme.
The McLean Flats have a commemorative aspect in that the name references the previous landowners and a family with notable historic associations with the city and the nation. The Gordon Wilson (Memorial) Flats was named in Gordon Wilson’s honour but not built as a memorial per se. The flats are similar to the Berhampore Centennial Flats in that respect. More comparable are the Anscombe Flats (List No. 1333) in Oriental Parade, which were designed and named by architect Edmund Anscombe in 1937. The Michael Fowler Centre and George Porter Tower (now demolished) are other Wellington buildings that reference notable local architects in their names. However the dedication of the Gordon Wilson Flats to the architect, who had a major influence on New Zealand’s state housing scheme and a particular interest in Modernist multi-storey high-density apartment blocks of this type, is a particularly fitting commemoration.
The McLean Flats and the Gordon Wilson Flats are part of the lineage of mid-century government Modernist architecture, and government-provided rental housing in New Zealand, particularly in regard to the provision of high- and medium-density typologies in Auckland and Wellington. The McLean Flats represents a further stage in the development of a higher-density housing model that was initiated with the Berhampore Flats and continued with the Dixon Street Flats. The Gordon Wilson Flats, like the Upper Grey’s Avenue Flats in Auckland, represent the post-war development of two existing state housing apartment sites with modified designs consistent with changing tastes in Modernist architecture brought about by construction delays. It made use of technological advances in building techniques to economise with construction costs, and its large scale and rectilinear facade, communicating the maisonette configuration, made a bold statement in presence. With the demolition of the Upper Greys Avenue Flats in January 2020 the Gordon Wilson Flats are now the only surviving example of a late 1950s high-rise in New Zealand’s history of state housing provision.
1943 - 1944
Construction of McLean Flats (MF)
1948 - 1964
Asphalt roof repairs (MF)
1957 - 1959
Construction of Gordon Wilson Flats (GWF)
Modernisation of rooftop laundry; bathrooms upgraded; crib (retaining) wall at rear of site filled with concrete (GWF)
Hot water heating system replaced (GWF)
Television aerial affixed to roof (GWF)
Incinerator chimney replaced (GWF)
Balconies enclosed and flower boxes removed (MF)
Repairs and maintenance; including replacement of stairwell windows, roof membrane and railings (GWF)
Fire protection improvements
Fire safety improvements undertaken (GWF)
McLean Flats: Reinforced concrete, timber, glass.
Gordon Wilson Flats: Reinforced fairface concrete shear walls, structural steel, vitreous enamelled metal balcony panels, brick, glass, timber joinery and flooring (tawa and rimu).
Public NZAA Number
13th November 2020
Report Written By
Dr Ann McEwan and Blyss Wagstaff
Kenneth Davis, ''A Liberal Turn of Mind' The Architectural Work of F. Gordon Wilson 1936-1959: A cultural Analysis.', Research Report, B.Arch, University of Auckland, 1987
J. Gatley, 'Labour Takes Command; A History and Analysis of State Rental Flats in New Zealand 1935-1949', a thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Architecture, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, 1997
Ben Schrader, We call it home: a history of New Zealand state housing. Auckland: Reed, 2005
Gatley, Julia ‘Going Up Rather Than Out – State Rental Flats in New Zealand 1935-1949’, Brookes, Barbara, ed., At Home in New Zealand – History, Houses, People, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2000, pp. 140-154.
‘The heritage identification of modern public housing: the New Zealand example’, The Journal of Architecture, Vol. 15, No. 5, pp. 683-96; Routledge, London, 2010.
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