Jan and Luit Bieringa are not your typical empty nesters. When they created the Wakefield Street apartment development it garnered huge support from the architectural community at large, as well as the locals. When all three of the three-storey apartments are viewed together from the street, one can really marvel at the jigsaw-like composition that sits in contrast to the historic 1906 base.
Designed by Luit’s friend, James Fenton of Architecture Workshop, what is special about these apartments is their unique use of urban topography, as well as their deliberate environmental devices. There are large overhangs to the roof that reduce the effects of the afternoon heat and provide a covered outdoor area that is sheltered from the elements in the evenings.
The most impressive devices are the simple ones. For instance, the lift to the apartments is housed in the neighbouring building in order to encourage residents to use the stairs. Fenton has also linked all apartments with a unique open-air corridor that inspires residents to interact and engage with one another.
This shared space is not only beautiful, allowing each apartment dweller 45 square metres of external space and the chance to share in a larger urban garden, but it is also beneficial to the residents of the whole block’s general psyche.
There is also the unusual formatting of the living spaces that spawn out over three levels. Built with various degrees of translucency, the base is the original brickwork, the bedrooms are privately concealed on the first floor, working up to the dining room where each apartment’s dining space is open for all to see with a full floor-to-ceiling glass window.
So, do Jan and Luit ever feel like they are on show? Definitely not. Luit explains his feelings about the fishbowl phenomena: “All [the people in the street] get when they look up is a dining room, but when we look down, we see hundreds [of people] – the whole of humanity in all its grotesqueness and delightfulness.”
Fenton says he chose the materials as a way to contrast with the old in order to make it new. “The bedrooms are nestled on the lower level to instil a true sense of privacy. The living level then exposes itself in the form of a glass box in contrast to the compactness of the lower sleeping levels. The privacy decreases up a vertical gradient with a corresponding increase in transparency at the upper levels,” he says.
With stacking precision, the apartment offers 158 square metres of internal space over the three levels, cleverly giving the feeling of a house. There are remarkable views in all directions to the neighbouring landscape and Wellington’s harbour, as well as the hilly eastern suburbs.
Luit and Jan, who are both involved in the arts, use part of the building for their office, and tenant the other spaces to other creative industries. Luit, a freelance curator and former director of the National Art Gallery of New Zealand, and Jan, who deals in film and new media, came from living with a huge dog and three children in a big, old house in Hataitai, a suburb of Wellington overlooking the harbour, before moving into the apartment.
What Luit loves most about the architecture is its unapologetic minimalism. “Both Jan and I are gatherers of art and books – the last thing we needed was a space cluttered with details and materials,” he says. The materials themselves are pared back and deliberately so. Compressed sheet, steel and glass make up the palette, allowing the rawness of Fenton’s choices to be appreciated without surrounding fuss. It also allows Jan and Luit to hang their collection of artwork with maximum impact – mostly New Zealand artists that Luit has championed during his career.
Although the project experienced a three-year gestation period given its mould-breaking concept, the Bieringas – and their neighbours – couldn’t be happier. “Considering Jan and Luit were making a move from a tree-sheltered suburban family home into a glass box atop an old building in one of the most prominent corners of Wellington, the waiting time was expected,” says Fenton. Proving that big leaps often incur hitches, he remembers that a council heritage advisor had problems with understanding the approach they took to the north facade, only signing it off once it had been built! “Doesn’t pay to wonder what our options were if they didn’t like it,” says Fenton. Clearly they, like everyone else, approved and the rest is Wellington architectural history.