New Zealand’s One-Level Wonders

February 29, 2012

If the home of an Englishman is his castle, then New Zealanders must have far less grand aspirations. Having been born and raised in Bath – a city built for show, with houses to match – the pastel-coloured, one-storey wooden structures that made up every small town and village I drove through on a recent trip to New Zealand were striking in their simplicity. But, at the risk of using one of the most over-used adjectives in travel PR, they were also utterly charming.

I was informed by one of my best friends (whose wedding I was out there to celebrate) that Kiwis get a bit peeved about Brits labelling their houses as ‘bungalows’. Sure, with their wide verandas and ornate woodwork they’re a cut above the average boxy eyesore favoured by so many pensioners over here, but – let’s be frank – they’re still bungalows.

The British relationship with single-storey properties has been stormy for decades. Initially considered a form of quality but low-cost temporary housing, superior to ‘pre-fabs’, the buildings quickly gained criticism for their inelegant design. The Daily Express certainly wasn’t enamoured with them when it wrote, in 1927, that, “hideous allotments and bungaloid growth make the approaches to any city repulsive.”

Thankfully, the Kiwis have mastered the art of bungalow-design. In the wrong hands their country could have ended up resembling a sort of gigantic holiday camp; but instead their pretty homes add to the dramatic scenery that surrounds them. And, by keeping their roofs low, these ‘bungalows’ (sorry) really show off the steep forested hills and purple-hued mountains behind.

Even better, should homeowners fancy a change of scenery (or neighbours), there are companies who will literally pick up your property and move it somewhere else. We stayed in an old courthouse near Whanganui National Park which had been moved in its entirety in the 1920s, when the resident judge grew bored of the nearby town he’d been living in for the previous 15 years. I’d pay good money to move my lovely London flat away from the screaming babies who live either side of it, but alas, being on the bottom floor in a row of brick-built terraced houses, it’s not changing location anytime soon.

New Zealand towns’ high streets are equally as neat, although some have thrown caution to the wind and added an extra floor.  Shops, cafés and small hotels have grand, wooden-clad facades, with verandas, columns and a parapet wall hiding a corrugated iron roof. The name of the establishment either swings on a small sign under the porch, or is emblazoned in a bold Victorian font on the building’s front. The effect is that the whole street feels a bit unreal – fragile and temporary, as if you’re on the set of a Wild West film. There are certainly no Starbucks or KFCs here, and it’s all the better for it.

So, perhaps as a nation we should begin to embrace the humble bungalow, just as our cousins on the other side of the world have done. In the spirit of the current trend of making the unremarkable sound remarkable by fusing two unlikely words together – think ‘Glamping’, or (for the West Londoners among us) ‘Glamoursmith’ – perhaps all they need is a simple rebrand. For example, ‘blingalows’ would work well for the swanky new-builds, ‘bunga-bungalows’ might cater for Italian-style intimate weekends, and ‘fungalows’ would appeal to the student market. With the UK’s dire shortage of housing and proliferation of trees, the humble bungalow might just save the day.  (Penny Law)