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New Zealand Institute of Architects









As Part of Myself

by Celia Mahon-Heap

As part of my job, I venture into other people’s houses. I go into the kitchen and measure the distance between the walls, the different ceiling heights. I take note of the two-door garage filled with a lifetime supply of old rugby boots, bikes and surfboards, a deceased parent’s washing machine. The cars, left out on the driveway.

Back in the office, we piece together the drawings, and add phrases like, ‘awkward kitchen layout’, ‘living room lacks connection to the outside’, ‘more storage’. Then begin the revealing process of trying to understand our client’s priorities, their values and the ways the best versions of themselves would like to live.

The mixed-housing suburban, middle-class dream of having a swimming pool and a scullery. Auckland Council tells us that a child could “very easily” climb a 1.8m-high neighbouring fence and jump down onto a 12mm-wide glass one. Trespassing their way to drowning in a city surrounded by open bodies of water. Tāmaki Makaurau, an abundant fertile place, ‘desired by many’. Land of a hundred lovers, a city not really living up to its name.

As part of my dating life, I sometimes venture into other people’s houses. There was the Tech Guy, who in his echoey concrete apartment had so many bikes he couldn’t open the front door. His bathtub, filled with metallic mosaics and Aesop soap bottles. It was so big that at parties people would gather in there. The bathtub steps, dotted with pot plants and places to sit.

The Artist, who chose to have a single bed, so she had enough room to display her other artist friends’ work on shelves she made from pieces of wood from Bunnings. The Musician, who lived in a rickety house off K Road that tilted towards the motorway and whose flatmates made her take the shampoo and body-wash in and out of the shower each time she used it. At night-time, the constant whirring sound of trucks below would keep me awake, as they crossed over the rumble strips with a thuck, thuck, thuck.

My ex-girlfriend was a baker, who lived in an apartment without a kitchen. Well, technically, it was just outside, in between the neighbours’ bathroom and living room. The old man next door would shuffle across in his underwear, making his way to the toilet, as I carried dirty plates to the sink. I sometimes wondered what her neighbours thought about me coming and going from the one-bedroom apartment.

She lived in a typical Shanghainese lane house. These were buildings that up until the Chinese Revolution were comfortably inhabited by a few families. They’ve since been renovated to accommodate multiple apartments, in a growing city of 25 million people, without the proper layout or infrastructure to do so. There is a loosening on spatial layout rules and a sense of co-habitation and ownership.

Eventually, I moved into an Art Deco-style building, where I accidentally walked into a paper-burning ceremony for my neighbour’s deceased family member. Smoke had started to fill the lower levels; worried that I would freak out at the sight of the open flames in the stairwell, one of the women quickly explained, “We’re communicating with our dead ancestors”. There were a few of them crouched together, in mourning. I sent a message to my flatmates, “Don’t worry about the smell of smoke from downstairs”.

As part of Beijing Design Week, I went on a media tour of Caochangdi Art District. The editor of Metropolis magazine asked me if I wanted to sneak away to find Ai Weiwei’s blue studio door. “Cool,” I said, standing in front of a large blue gate, CCTV cameras pointed at us in all directions. Two black cars with tinted windows waited outside on the empty street.

We had started to walk away, when I heard the hinges of the metal door creak and turned around to see Ai Weiwei. Quickly, I tried to think of something to say. “We were just admiring the flowers in your basket.” I pointed to his bike chained to a tree outside, the daily fresh flowers he placed in it a symbol of his defiance. “Oh, thank you!”, he smiled graciously and started to walk over to us.

We asked about his exhibition, set to open in Alcatraz that week. The Chinese government had confiscated his passport and banned him from leaving the country. “They’re just doing what they think is best,” he said, tilting his head towards the cameras, a calmness in his voice. “Should we take a selfie?”, he laughed, before disappearing into one of the black cars.

As part of my restlessness, I have often found refuge in other people’s houses. Living in Beijing, I became friends with a girl who worked for a media company that broadcast poems over WeChat. She’d grown up in Tauranga and had whakapapa back to Beijing. Isolated and lonely, we became family; we still are today.

Her apartment belonged to a woman whose marriage had broken up. Unable to face clearing it out, she had put everything in her bedroom and locked the door. The walls still had family portraits on them, so we would have dinner parties surrounded by photos of people we didn’t know. My friend had a small hamster called “Anti-apartheid” that would scurry around in a plastic ball, occasionally knocking into kids’ toys left in the playroom.

When I moved back to New Zealand a few years later, I helped one of these friends from Beijing and his boyfriend renovate their house. A somewhat, well-known media personality, he had Mike McRoberts over to show us how to paint the walls. “Well done, Celia,” he said in his deep, articulate voice, “you’ve done a really good job around the windows.”

We ripped up the ugly carpet and pulled out old nails from the hidden floorboards. Then tried to decide if they were worth oiling, or if we should start afresh and paint over them. We tore down the vinyl on the walls and put a piece in a frame to hang up after the work was done.

One evening after returning the rented floor sander, my friend and I started talking about our dreams for the future. I told him I knew people who, years after buying their homes, were still living with the same ugly bathroom tiles that they “hated when they moved in”, but “didn’t mind so much now”. It scared me, I said. The complacency, the acceptance.

It was 2020; we had lots of time and lots of uncertainty. Being queer, we also didn’t fit in.

My friend replied, “We’re not like that, though; we have to validate our desires.” As part of my spare time, I watch a lot of music videos. When I’m not designing spaces for people to eat, sleep and love in, I retreat into a meditative state with sound synced to visuals. Living with a gay man, I also watched a lot of Architectural Digest Open Door interviews. “We’re aesthetic creatures,” he proclaimed, after bringing home yet another candelabra.

There’s a gentleness that exists in gay clubs. I descend below K Road, down the fire-hazard stairs, ceiling dripping with condensation. I find myself at the regular 1.30am drag show, bodies pushed up against the stage. Afterwards on the street outside, we walked past an iridescent queen. “You were great, hun”, I grinned. “Thank you, darling. Get home safe!”, she replied.

As part of architecture, I work out toilet capacity numbers for venues. I start by using an online calculator that’s linked to the Building Code; each time, the requirement for men’s toilets is higher. “That’s because the rules were made by men,” my old boss said as he swivelled around in his chair. “Right. And they just haven’t been updated?”

I refer to ‘G1 Personal hygiene’, where the tables have gendered activities deemed to be more frequented by men over women. ‘Offices, banks’ provides a multiplication factor of 1.0 for men and 0.65 for women. ‘Restaurants, bars, night club’, 0.80 men and 0.5 women. According to the Building Code, women are more likely to occupy churches and less likely to be found at a transport terminal.

As part of my well-being, I now find a huge sense of relief just being at home. My girlfriend lives in a semi-detached brick house with a flourishing garden. Her living room has mostly furniture that could easily return to the earth. I live in a 50 sqm apartment and balcony with no outdoor furniture and a 3D-printed, recycled-plastic stool that glistens unnaturally in the sun. There’s a cupboard full of art supplies that never get used and books left on the shelf that remain unread. “I’ll go to the plant shop this weekend,” I tell her, “and figure out which ones grow best in the morning light.”


This essay was highly commended in the Open category of the 2022 Warren Trust Awards for Architectural Writing.

Photo: Street scene by Li Lin from Unsplash.