By Jasper van der Lingen
Building on the hills overlooking Christchurch and its harbours is always challenging, dealing at times with awkward topography, access and various plan restrictions. But it is also a great opportunity with often amazing views and interesting terrain and landscape.
The Port Hills are formed from volcanic activity and we can see the evidence everywhere, from the sharp edge of the crater rim, the bluffs and rocky outcrops, as horizontal strata of solidified lava and the contours and spurs delineating the flows pouring out of the ancient volcano.
How do you approach building on these slopes? How do you make sure what is placed on this striking landscape enhances it and does not clash becoming an eyesore imported inappropriately from some other place?
There are various strategies one can imagine – touching the ground lightly hovering delicately over the slopes, or perhaps digging in, becoming part of the land using materials and forms of the surroundings.
A house should be a place to be at home, to feel grounded and secure. To be “at home” is to be in a particular place and have the feeling you are deeply connected and part of it. This is what the best architecture can do.
The challenge for good design is to respond to these important issues and to build on the hills in a way that is sympathetic and appropriate, while also creative, providing a stimulating and nurturing environment to be yourself in this special and unique place.
Building on the flat in Christchurch is different. The landscape surroundings are generally less of a strong influence unless you are along the edge of a something like the river, sea or a park or reserve. Mostly it is the buildings around that form the context and feel of an area.
Standard suburbia is commonly about similarly styled houses on similarly sized sections, risking it becoming an environment of bland sameness. Design on the flat can be great and exciting of course, but will need more effort to get a degree of individuality.
This is where houses on the hill are different. The complex and unique topography of many sites encourages more individual responses, meaning the hill suburbs often hold more variety and complexity.
This is not to say one area to build is necessarily better than another, but it demonstrates the deep influence landscape can have on design.
The best architecture shows an understanding of this and responds in a creative way to the unique qualities of a particular place, including its cultural history and context.
Houses that manage do this well become places with real soul and meaning.