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6 December 2018

Taken In Context

With more than 30 signature projects in and around Ponsonby and Grey Lynn to its name, RTA Studios has, in its own small way, begun to change the fabric of the streets and neighbourhoods it has touched.


Apart from three years spent living in London, architect Richard Naish has made Grey Lynn his home since graduating from university in 1990.

Including renting with mates, living in a string of villas, and designing and building several new homes for his young family. During this time he has also established and grown a multi-award-winning architectural practice – RTA Studios – based out of one of his own uniquely designed buildings on Pollen Street.

“I’ve always enjoyed the gritty diversity of Ponsonby,” he says. “It’s changing rapidly, but that feeling is still here. I also like the more liberal nature of the people who live here, and the village-like feel to the place. There’s also its centrality – its closeness to the CBD and the public transport links. All this makes it a very liveable part of the city.”

As an architect, Naish says he has always had an interest in the context and immediate surroundings of his projects – whether a rural or coastal landscape, or a residential street in an inner city suburb such as Grey Lynn.

“With most of the projects we’ve designed in Greater Ponsonby, we’ve tried somehow to link them into the historical context, or cultural context, or urban context – or a layering of all three. We try to make buildings that feel comfortable in their environment,” he says.

On face value, some would find this last comment hard to figure, especially given the striking and sometimes challenging façades and forms of some of RTA’s projects. However, as Naish is keen to point out, there is always a logical thought process attached to every design, not matter how avant-garde it may at first seem.

“It’s always a bit controversial putting new houses into an existing, historical neighbourhood,” he says. “Our current house, which we call the E-type house, is a good example. The context for this house is that we have taken the shape of a typical square-fronted villa, with its pyramid-shaped roof, and split it into four equal quadrants. We’ve then arranged three of these quadrants in a line spread up the hill, linked by a long corridor.

“In doing that we have created a rhythm of three,” he explains. “Often, villas and bungalows were built in pairs, triplets or quadruplets by individual builders from kitset plans drawn up back in the UK – not unlike the kind of cookie-cutter homes you get these days from the big group homebuilders – and that’s what gives the lovely grain and repetition and form you see around these streets in Ponsonby and Grey Lynn. So, in a sense, the E-type house is just picking up on that rhythm by using a familiar shape, albeit disguised a bit by chopping it up, and stepping it up the topography.”

And when you look at the house from across Grey Lynn Park, in context with the surrounding villas, you can see exactly what the architect describes.

Naish goes onto say that by splitting the ‘house’ into parts, he has allowed each resulting pod to have all-day sun, with warm, sheltered north-facing courtyards in between. And because each pod has only a small footprint of just under 40sqm, they are easy to ventilate, have great solar gain, and are sustainable to operate.

“Sometimes we talk about our house as being three houses on a street,” he says. “The hallway’s the road, the living is at the front, our bedroom and the second living space is in the middle, and then the kids are in the house up the back of the section.

“By challenging the way we have occupied the space, we have come up with a much more liveable typology of what is basically the traditional form. It’s a new way of occupying a typical long, narrow Grey Lynn site,” he says. Which all makes perfect sense.

Naish’s previous house – House For Five – is across Grey Lynn Park in Arnold Street. It has a simple, white gabled façade, which he describes as a reduction of the form of a bungalow. This has then been overlaid with decorative elements and motifs, borrowed from nearby villas, to act as privacy and sunscreens. Again, when you look at this house in context, the angles, the roofline and its proportions all fit in with the existing houses in the street.

Both these homes have received a bevy of local and international awards, including the E-Type house taking out the coveted Home of the Year award in 2015, and both reached the finals in the World Architecture Festival in their respective years.

Naish has applied the same philosophy of historical and cultural context to the many commercial buildings RTA Studios has designed in the area.

One of his most prominent projects in Ponsonby is the row of small shops at the top of Mackelvie Street, with its distinctive white façade of perforated sheet metal – a look that has become a signature of RTA’s work.

“When you look at those shops, they are proportioned on the height and width of the shop-houses along Ponsonby Road – typically four-and-a-half metres wide and between seven and nine metres tall – but we have pulled them apart, much like the E-Type House, into four individual shops. This gives them a familiar scale.”

Naish goes onto explain that the punched-out decoration on the façades is based on a Damask pattern, originally from the Moorish period, but prevalent in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and used on carpets and wallpaper decoration. “This abstracted pattern makes a contextual link to the historical shop buildings in the street,” he says.

The appropriately named IronBank building that burst out of the back of K Road in 2010 is, perhaps, Naish’s most audacious project. From the street, it is relatively obedient, but that conformity gives way to a rebellious stack of rusted Corten steel boxes and exposed services at the rear.

“Again, if you look at this building from the front, it knits into the heritage fabric of the street, sympathetic in scale and proportion and materiality, but at the same time it is aggressively modern and chaotic at the back, where we tried to emulate the typically ramshackle and haphazard streetscape behind K Rd.

“All of our projects spring off each other and off the scale and proportion of the streets they sit in,” he says. “They are clearly modern interventions, but are sympathetic to the scale and proportion of the street, and also to the original materiality and decoration.”

Back in Grey Lynn, Object Space, the regeneration project that saw an old warehouse transformed into a public art gallery, is RTA’s most recent addition to the local streetscape. Here, Naish has adopted a different approach to the design, where the goal is to highlight rather than blend the new building into the neighbourhood.

“With Object Space we have tried to create a bit of a beacon for a gallery that has come off a prominent position on Ponsonby Road and now resides in a more industrial neighbourhood,” explains Naish. “The bright, white and clean cuboid form is designed to make it stand out. At night, it lights up as a beacon to what is contained inside – a series of carefully controlled exhibition spaces.”

Naish says it has been very rewarding to have had the opportunity to design so many projects in the area – many of which are small refurbishments and upgrades that have been built unknown and unseen. “It’s good to be involved – it’s part of what living in a community is about, feeling like you’ve contributed and have improved the liveability of a place.”

Looking To The Future

“I’m an advocate of reducing our footprints – not just environmentally, but also physically. With well-designed houses and apartments, we can live comfortably in much smaller spaces that we currently do.”

As such, Naish says he’s a supporter of increased housing density in the inner city suburbs, citing large tracts of land within his own neighbourhood, particularly in the area along Richmond Road, around Farro, Countdown and Mitre10, that have huge potential to become really well designed, liveable, medium- to high-density housing areas.

“If we want to have a liveable city that’s affordable for the younger generation, then we have to confront density, and we have to confront it in the inner city suburbs as well. I also understand that we have to protect our heritage streets,” he adds.

“The single house zone with heritage overlay is very restrictive, and that’s why it’s there, but there are plenty of pockets within Grey Lynn and Ponsonby that don’t come under those restrictions. The Unitary Plan has enabled a number of new zones to develop in and around these heritage streets, and that has opened up opportunities to design modern, medium-density housing.”

Looking across the Tasman, Naish says cities like Melbourne and Sydney have been doing it, and doing it well, for a generation or two longer than us. “Melbourne is a great example, where I believe they have doubled the population of their inner city suburbs, and they’ve achieved this with infill projects, in a way our Unitary Plan envisages will happen over here.”

Naish also believes there’s an opportunity for a second layer of hospitality and retail along Ponsonby Road, where people are drawn in through existing and new buildings to the back streets and service alleys. And that’s partly what his ongoing project in Mackelvie and Pollen Streets is trying to achieve – creating interesting little laneways, where bars and shops can trade on both sides of their buildings.

“When we go to cities that we love around the world, like Melbourne and London and Paris, we always have the best fun and discover the best places off the high street or behind the main thoroughfares – that’s where the cool bars and restaurants are, and that’s the opportunity Auckland has as it grows up – that second layer.

“Ponsonby Central is a great start and a good example – and our projects are already linked up to it via a laneway. But there are also opportunities on the other side of the Ponsonby Rd, facing the city,” says Naish.



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