Historical Significance or Value
Modern Movement architects associated with the Auckland University College School of Architecture have dominated historical narratives about this period of Aotearoa New Zealand’s architectural history. While their influence remains critically important, it has obscured the contribution of architects such as Alex Bowman, who followed a different path. Bowman House has historical significance as a representation of the contribution of architects outside this mid-century inner circle. It is a reminder that significant Modern Movement domestic architecture can be found beyond the main centres.
Architectural Significance or Value
Bowman House is an excellent candidate for the earliest Aotearoa New Zealand Modern Movement house to employ hollow concrete blocks as the main building material. Concrete blocks became a signature material for houses of this style and Bowman House compares well with other more celebrated examples. Along with the primacy of concrete blocks, the orientation towards the view over Te Tai-o-Aorere / Tasman Bay reflects the influence of the American Bay Area style on Alex Bowman, specifically the work of architect William Wurster. The house reveals a concern with topographical responsiveness, stepping down the hill to create multiple levels, thus reducing the need for excavation in an exercise of architectural efficiency.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
Bowman House possesses historical significance as an early manifestation of domestic Modern Movement architecture in Aotearoa New Zealand. The house foreshadowed design trends that would become recognisable elements of post-Second World War architecture. It represents the transmission to this country of international architectural developments, and furthermore, beyond the main centre circles commonly associated with the Modern Movement.
(g) The technical accomplishment, value, or design of the place
Bowman House sits at the forefront of Modern Movement domestic architecture in Aotearoa New Zealand through the early use of hollow core concrete blocks and innovative employment of multi-levels in response to topography. Concrete is critical to the house’s aesthetic and remains the stand-out material feature. Though the house has been altered, these changes were made by the original architect Alex Bowman in line with changing requirements for a family home and unsympathetic additions were later removed. The more recent extensions designed by Ian Bowman work in harmony with the original fabric, which is very intact - the salient original architectural features have been retained and are highly legible. The house remains faithful to the Bay Area aesthetic.
Summary of Significance or Values
Bowman House has architectural and historical significance as Aotearoa New Zealand’s earliest known Modern Movement house constructed of hollow concrete blocks, a material which became a defining feature of this architecture. It predates better known concrete block houses of the period and possesses sufficient architectural accomplishment, authenticity and integrity to warrant recognition. The place is evidence of the important contribution of lesser-known practitioners such as Alex Bowman to the country’s architectural fabric and history.
Te Tau Ihu, the top of Te Waipounamu / the South Island, is the prow of Māui’s waka and the rohe of eight iwi: Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Apa and Rangitāne (Kurahaupō tribes), Ngāti Toarangatira, Ngāti Koata and Ngāti Rārua (Tainui tribes), and Ngāti Tama and Te Ātiawa (Taranaki tribes). What is now the Nelson region has been settled for hundreds of years. The Ngā Rapuwai and Waitaha peoples were among the earliest inhabitants. Some oral traditions say Ngā Rapuwai came directly to Whakatū / Nelson from the Pacific aboard the waka Te Ārai te Uru or Tairea, while others assert landfall was first made in Taranaki by the waka Ōkoki, with some of the voyagers moving onto Te Waipounamu. Waitaha are said by most accounts to have come on the Uruao from Hawaiki, with first landfall at Whakatū. Both iwi cultivated gardens on the Waimea Plains, improving on the naturally fertile soil by the addition of ash, wood, gravel, sand and ‘vegetable matter’. Waitaha people quarried pakohe /argillite from mineral deposits throughout the region, including around Whakatū, and it was traded through the land.
Later inhabitants included Ngāi Tara, who came to Whakatū and Waimea from Te Whanganui-a-Tara in the mid-1550s, and Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri, whose influence spread from the western Marlborough Sounds across Whakatū and Waimea to Mohua / Golden Bay. In the late eighteenth century Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri were supplanted by incoming Kurahaupō tribes Ngāti Kuia, Rangitāne and Ngāti Apa. They in their turn were challenged by Ngāti Toarangatira, Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Tama and Te Ātiawa during the so-called musket wars period of the early nineteenth century.
Whakatū was the location of the second New Zealand Company settlement in Aotearoa New Zealand, established after Wellington in Te-Whanganui-a-Tara. In October 1841 three Company ships arrived in Te Tai-o-Aorere / Tasman Bay, this having been identified by Governor William Hobson as one of the few acceptable sites for the second of the Company’s settlements. Despite the lack of a precise physical location for this settlement, the Company had started selling land parcels in Britain months earlier.
Moutere and Motueka were explored first but rejected due to a lack of sufficient land for agriculture. Another necessity was a navigable harbour. Company expedition head Arthur Wakefield sent a group guided by Ngāti Rārua man Hamiora Pito down the coast to Whakatū. They explored inland Waimea, which was deemed to contain enough agricultural land, and Whakatū was duly chosen as the site for the new town of Nelson. The first immigrant ships arrived in February 1842.
The land on which 68 Britannia Heights would be built was part of a 7-acre section in what is now called the Port Hills, which was granted to Edward Stafford (who became the first superintendent of Nelson in 1853 and local member in the House of Representatives from 1855-1868) in two parts in 1851 and 1873. The block was sold to clerk Edward Moore in 1877 and it stayed in the Moore family for many decades. The Moores subdivided the land in 1937 and sold off suburban sections over the next few decades. In 1952 local architect Alex Bowman purchased land on Britannia Heights near the crest of the Port Hills.
Alexander Bowman (1916-2001)
Alexander (Alex) Bowman studied architecture at Canterbury University College in Christchurch from 1935-1937 and found work at local firm Helmore and Cotterill while a student. In 1938 he headed for England, where he worked on social housing for the London County Council. The Second World War intervened and Bowman served in the New Zealand Army in Noumea, Egypt and Italy. After the war ended in 1945 he went back to London where he studied, then worked, in town planning. On his return to Aotearoa New Zealand in 1948 Bowman was employed by the Department of Education before taking over the architectural practice Houlker and Duke in Nelson the following year.
Bowman became the city’s leading architect and is credited with bringing Modern Movement architecture to Nelson. Like many of his peers, such as Miles Warren, he travelled overseas, where he was exposed to new architectural trends. In the late 1940s, he went to the United States with the architect Allot Gabites. They visited California and were exposed to the Bay Area style exemplified by the domestic work of William Wurster, who was known for his use of innovative building materials like hollow concrete blocks and maximisation of sea views. This made an impression on Bowman and informed his architectural practice.
Back in Nelson, there were no local manufacturers of hollow concrete blocks. Bowman looked to Christchurch, where in 1952 Winstone had opened a concrete masonry factory in which to manufacture ‘Vibrapac’ blocks. Portland cement and aggregates were mixed to form concrete, which was ‘automatically vibrated and compressed into blocks of true dimensions [then] racked and cured in steam kilns.’ These blocks formed the main building material of what became Bowman’s family home.
While concrete block was not a new material for domestic buildings – the first such house was built in 1904 – it was still unusual. When Bowman House was built in 1953 it was only the second house to be built on the subdivision and for some time was exceedingly visible from all sides. Reportedly locally ‘controversial’, there would not have been anything like it in Nelson at the time.
The house was laid out in a capital ‘J’ shape, with the arm of the ‘J’ facing east towards the street. The east elevation contained three bedrooms and a small open garage. The west elevation or terminal of the ‘J’ contained the kitchen and living room with a built-in fireplace and a basement underneath; between the two main wings was the bathroom and laundry with a sun room next to the side courtyard.
Over the next decade Alex Bowman designed four other Bay Area style modern movement houses in nearby Fifeshire Crescent. All of these houses were made of timber but shared a similar responsiveness to topography and maximisation of the harbour view as Bowman House.
In 1957 Bowman added a sunporch to the west elevation of Bowman House. This protruded out from the wall at the kitchen and living room level and was supported on stilts. The walls of the porch were floor-to-ceiling windows and French doors, which were surrounded by a narrow balcony. The garage was converted to a bedroom in 1963 and a separate carport was built on the north side of this room. The new bedroom was lit by a large steel 20-pane bay window facing the street. In 1986 the kitchen was enlarged by the addition of what was essentially a box to the south. Ten years later an office was added onto the roof of the carport.
These later additions, all of which were designed by Alex Bowman as family needs evolved, were for the most part unsympathetic to the clean lines of the house’s original form. When Bowman died in 2001 his son, conservation architect Ian Bowman, bought the house with his partner Erin Beatson. In 2005, Ian Bowman set about removing the unsympathetic aspects of the additions and designing extensions that adhered to the design ethos of the original building. The 1957 sunporch, 1963 carport and 1986 kitchen extension were duly demolished. The west elevation was pushed out to the north and the extension made the most of the spectacular views of Te Tai-o-Aorere / Tasman Bay by including a floor-to-ceiling window as the west face. The ground floor basement was converted to a bedroom and second bathroom. The east elevation was similarly extended over the footprint of the old carport. Ian Bowman’s design received a 2008 Te Kāhui Whaihanga New Zealand Institute of Architects Local Architecture Award. Judges described the alterations as ‘beautifully integrated…it is hard to know which are the old and which are the new parts.’ At the same ceremony, Alex Bowman’s Nellie Nightingale Library in Tāhunanui received an Enduring Architecture Award. Julia Gatley has argued that Bowman House ‘is still a radical post-World War II house at heart.’ On his death in 2001, Alex Bowman was noted in an obituary as ‘renowned for his use of concrete’.
Bowman House at 68 Britannia Heights in Nelson is set back from the street and separated by an off-street driveway that services a number of neighbouring houses. Britannia Heights is located at the top of Nelson’s Port Hills and the house faces west, overlooking Haulashore Island and Te Tai-o-Aorere / Tasman Bay. It is not visible from the street.
The exterior is made of unpainted fair-faced concrete block. The original Vibrapac blocks have a rougher cast than those used in the 2005 extension but the two are visually compatible. The original Critall steel joinery has been retained and replicated in the new sections.
The house is laid out in a capital ‘J’ shape with a garage attached to the top or arm of the ‘J’. The arm is formed by the east elevation, which contains the front door, two office rooms and two bedrooms. The most prominent feature of this elevation is a steel 20-pane bay window. This area of the house was originally a carport; it was converted into a bedroom in 1963. The office on the right of the bedroom was added in 2005 and replaced the carport added in 1963.
The stem of the ‘J’ houses the bathroom/laundry and a small airy hall with a built-in bookshelf on the bathroom (south) side and double-doors on the north side that open onto a sheltered courtyard planted with ferns, two mature nīkau palms and a mature kōwhai tree. The bathroom has been modernised but retains the original metal bath. The bookshelf was installed during the 2005 renovation.
The terminal of the ‘J’ is made up of the west elevation comprising the kitchen and dining/living room. The living room section was extended in 2005 and bi-folding metal doors on the north elevation open out onto a new deck that connects the house and garden by a wide flight of timber steps. The west elevation of the living room extension is floor-to-ceiling windows which afford a magnificent view of Te Tai-o-Aorere / Tasman Bay. On the east elevation, the living room is lit by a long clerestory window, one of the original features that carried through in the 2005 renovation. Underneath this floor of the house is the basement which has been converted into a third bedroom. The timber ceiling beams and herringbone trusses have been left exposed. The garden is the work of noted landscape architect Megan Wraight (1961-2020).
In keeping with the topography and reducing the amount of excavation required, each of the three sections has a different floor level, with the house stepped down the hill overlooking the bay. The corrugated iron-clad roof is pitched at the east elevation, and then slopes down to the west elevation. The original concrete chimney remains in-situ.
The use of multi-levels creates a clear differentiation of space and function inside the house. The east level is devoted to work and sleep (offices and bedrooms), whereas the west level overlooking the garden is communal space (kitchen, dining and living). All the internal walls are clad in Gibraltar board.
The galley kitchen is visually separated from the dining/living area by a substantial rimu panel. The cabinetry was installed in 2005. The window seat and bay window next to the kitchen were installed during the same renovation, replacing the sunporch extension added by Alex Bowman in 1957.
The dining area is on the other side of the rimu panel next to the west elevation’s original large window. The dining table and chairs were designed by Alex Bowman and have been in the house since it was built. The living area is differentiated from the dining area by a strategically-placed couch and the original fireplace on the west elevation. This space was extended in 2005 and the employment of floor-to-ceiling windows on the west elevation and bi-folding glazed doors on the north elevation means the room is flooded with natural light in the afternoon.
Concrete, timber, corrugated iron.
5th April 2021
Report Written By
Julia Gatley (ed.), Long Live the Modern: New Zealand's New Architecture 1904-1984, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2008
Gatley, Julia, ‘The Concrete Block House in 1950s New Zealand’, in David Benyon and Ursula M. De Jong (eds.), History in Practice: Proceedings of the 25th International Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians Australia and New Zealand, Geelong, Australia, 3-6 July 2008.
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