Sky high

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.

Turkey’s traditional wooden houses under threat

Demolition sites are everywhere in Suleymaniye. Chaotic plots of broken beams, rubble and grubby sandbags; they dot the winding streets of this Istanbul neighbourhood perched on a hillside below an Ottoman mosque.

Further down, towards the waters of the Golden Horn inlet of the Bosphorus, fences surround a construction site where a tunnel for a new metro line bores into the ground.

“There used to be another row of wooden houses there,” says Stein-Gunnar Sommerset, a Norwegian academic who has a house nearby.

Istanbul – one of this year’s European capitals of culture – is renowned for its great stone monuments, including the Byzantine Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque.

But Turkey’s largest city also has a long tradition of construction in wood, and in the early 20th century timber structures accounted for most of Istanbul’s housing stock.

Many of those traditional buildings have vanished and the survivors are under threat.

Martin Bachmann, an architectural historian at the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul, estimates that there are only about 250 timber houses left in the entire city. In a mere three streets clustered around the mosque in Zeyrek, a neighbourhood once renowned for its wooden structures, 10 demolitions took place in the last six years.

“Compared to the historical situation it’s nearly nothing,” says Bachmann.


According to Zeynep Ahunbay, a Professor of Architectural Restoration at Istanbul Technical University, wooden construction took off in the city in the 16th century.

“There was a strong earthquake in 1509 and the earlier buildings, mixed structures, they were not so good,” she explained, adding that the majority of houses that survive today date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Built with oak frames and clad in pine, the houses were painted and many had distinctive bay windows on the higher floors and lengthy eaves.

The decline of the timber houses began early in the 20th century.

After devastating fires during World War One, the authorities banned construction in wood. In the 1920s foreign minorities – who dominated the ranks of the skilled craftsman needed to build and maintain the structures – began to leave.

Then, following World War Two, the Turkish middle classes started to desert old wooden neighbourhoods like Zeyrek and Suleymaniye for more modern accommodation. In their place came poor rural migrants who had neither the means nor the experience to maintain the houses.

As the years passed more and more of the houses vanished; some demolished, others destroyed by fires, or simply neglected until they collapsed. Many of those that do survive are in an advanced stage of decrepitude.


Emine Erdogmus, a member of the wood committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites and an Istanbul resident, says that the while houses are officially protected by law, regulations are widely flouted.

“Our laws are perfect, up to European standards,” she said. “It’s the people who are playing with the laws.”

Concern about the houses extends beyond Turkey too.

This summer UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee will decide whether the Istanbul World Heritage Site, established in 1985, will be placed on an endangered list.

According to Mechtild Rossler, Europe and North American chief at the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, the condition and preservation of the timber houses will be one of the issues considered, along with a proposed new Golden Horn crossing.

Mustafa Demir – the mayor of Fatih Municipality, which includes many of the surviving wooden houses – says that preservation is a priority.

“One of the most important jobs is to protect the historic sites,” he said, adding that while in the past renovation often meant demolishing a house, rebuilding in concrete and then adding wood cladding, a method that is now forbidden. Demir admitted though that there is a reluctance to spend public funds on houses in private ownership.

The Turkish authorities have made clear progress in some areas though. In 2006 the Istanbul Municipality set up KUDEB, the directorate of Conservation, Implementation and Inspection.

This organisation has streamlined the process required to gain permission to carry out repairs, and also runs training courses in the skills required.

“They learn to do windows, doors, roof construction, traditional building construction,” explained Demet Surucu, an engineer in KUDEB’s timber workshop. Surucu added that the workshop has so far repaired 55 houses.

Elsewhere, before his death in 2003, Turkish preservationist Celik Gulersoy initiated house restoration on Sogukcesme Street close to Aya Sofya, while more recently Sommerset is renovating two houses in Suleymaniye.

“I think it’s a pity to see them decay, and it’s possible to rescue them with modest means.”