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What is the Dunedin Flat Names Project all about anyway?

Dunedin! It’s the site of New Zealand’s oldest university and has a campus environment like no other in the country. A big part of the experience is living on a residential campus where a great part of the surrounding suburb of North Dunedin is rental accommodation. The majority of Otago students hail from out of town, and for most of you this is your first experience of living away from home. This makes North Dunedin ripe for lots of liminal activity!

In fact, you might have noticed some interesting signs hanging on houses. You may even have moved into a flat and named it. You walk past these flats everyday as you make your way through campus – down Castle, or Leith, Hyde, Clyde, Dundas and Howe Street, you just don’t know that this has been going on for a very time, since before you were born, before your parents and grandparents were born.

Students have been naming their flats in Dunedin since the 1930s, there are flats with names like: The Bach, The Shambles, The Jam Factory, The Cock and Swallow, Hobbit, Libido’s Bar and Grill, Footrot Flats, Hogwartz, The Shrieking Shack, The Kumara Pit,  Hyde Street RSA, The Hilton, Bedrock, Sifta Rosa, The Lodge, DSIR (The Department of Student Inebriation Research), The Jolly Rodger, The Brick Shithouse, The Heap, The Manor, The Wardrobe, Bonnie Doon, The Greasy Beaver Lodge, The Muff Inn, The Burrow, The Palace, Bag End … the list goes on, there’s over 500 of them!

Names come and go, sometimes they move houses, or the name and their meanings can morph over time, but one thing hasn’t changed over the decades – named flats are ever present in Dunedin. They largely they follow the season of the academic year, but there are some that have taken root and have become part of the landscape.

How do we know this? The Dunedin Flat Names Project collects the names and the stories behind them. Names that have been painted, drawn, stencilled, spray painted onto a variety of objects: bits of board, fence palings, beer boxes, head boards, surfboards, whiteboards and skateboards! Some signs are commissioned, some obtained by sponsorship, some are initiated by landlords. They are photographed mapped and shared to this blog and to the DNFP community on Facebook, and this year, reported on in Critic in a series of columns.

Each week there will be a story about a flat, or group of flats that illustrate a theme in the taxonomy of flat naming, and I’ll be keeping an eye out as new flats emerge over the course of this year. Despite an environment rich with experiences, notorious parties, and houses in various states of historic significance or rank disrepair, some flatties find naming their flat difficult.


Names are Hard on Duke Street


The Greenhouse on Frederick Street

This modest brick bungalow on Frederick Street has had a few names over the year, in 2016 it was The Shade Room, in 2017 The Hippie Hut, and this year – following in a similar environmental vein, it’s The Green House.

The flatties, who are all science students, are huge Rick and Morty fans – their favourite character, Pickle Rick, features prominently on their sign which was painted on a bit of chip board.

2018 The Green House 2

The Green House on Frederick Street (2018)

Pickle Rick features in season 3 episode 3, when mad scientist Rick transforms himself into a pickle to get out of going to family therapy. Beth confiscates the antidote and after finding himself in a sewer, Pickle Rick fights for his life against a horde of rodents. Eventually he prevails by creating an exo-skeleton from their dissected remains and makes it back, injured, to join the family in therapy. It was an extremely popular episode, netting over 2 million viewers.


The class of 1946 — University of Otago 1869-2019

1946: New Zealand’s population drew close to 2 million, the long war was finally over, Prime Minister Peter Fraser led the Labour government into a fourth term, Southland held the Ranfurly Shield and The Best Years of Our Lives beat It’s a Wonderful Life to take the Oscar for best picture. But what was life […]

via The class of 1946 — University of Otago 1869-2019

The power of memory

Do your memories of your time at university seem particularly sharp or particularly powerful?

Professor Harlene Hayne, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Otago, delivered her Welcome Back lecture to university staff on 17 February 2016. Her topic was “Building Biographies: Making the Most of Our Residential Environment” and throughout her talk discussed autobiographical memory. Professor Hayne referred to the “rich deposit of memories between adolescence and adulthood”  between the ages of 17 and 23, and a phenomenon called the “reminiscence bump” which seems to magnify our memories of that time.

This resonated with me strongly (as I viewed the live stream from my desk) as it is in this period that students generally spend their time at university: learning, forging relationships, and experiencing life as people independent of their family network. It’s also the time in which students are creating their first homes which may be why naming a flat can have such strong memories and create such attachment for some students.

It’s interesting to me that much of the deeper, more descriptive information I have gathered through this research project has been from older alumni (30+) compared with those who are currently residents of named flats. It makes sense – those living the experience are in the process of forming their memories, whereas those who have moved on from university have those memories to reflect on.

So often it is only with hindsight that we see the value or understand the meaning and impact our previous experiences have had on us. For those who have named their flats, what comes through in the correspondence is a sense of identity creation and belong. It’s another piece of our autobiographical memory that illustrates how our Otago days have shaped our lives.

Onomastics / names and naming : the Tektonomastics Project

I recently learned of a field of study called onomastics, the study of names (how perfect) there are also has sub-disciplines: geonomastics or toponomastics (the naming of places) and anthroponomastics (the study of personal names). I wondered if there was a field of research that investigated the more specific naming of houses. While waiting on a couple of onomastics books to arrive at the library, I came across the Tektonomastics project.

“Tektonomastics” is a made-up word, combining “tekto-” — Greek for “building” — with “onomastics” — the study of the history and origin of proper names. [1]

For this project Haruka Horiuchi and Frank Hebbert created a new word, Tektonomastics, to describe their field of inquiry – the origin of building names. Their project entails the mapping of named residential buildings in New York both through their own efforts and through crowdsourcing.

This article from Daily Design Idea details their criteria for inclusion and the process they have developed. I really like how they have presented their data both in the map and inventory, and the visualisation of their taxonomy of building names is inspired. Its provided me with a great deal of inspiration for the Dunedin Flat Names Project.


Taxonomy of residential buildings in New York

It is not surprising, but by looking at this visual representation of their taxonomy I can immediately see the student flats of Dunedin have quite a different taxonomy – what is evident is that naming a building provides a sense of identity and belonging.




[1] Tektonomastics: the building names project


The making of signs

Generally students make their own signs for their flats, and usually they are made from whatever is readily and cheaply available. Signs vary enormously in their design and the materials used to construct them. Lack of availability of tools and cash for raw materials mean signs are often fairly basic in their design and limited in their execution.

However, there have been inventive materials used over the years, including headboards, cupboard doors, villa doors, white boards, skateboards and planks from beer crates. Sometimes the name is spray painted on a vinyl couch, or written in liquid chalk or vivid (permanent marker) on a window. More recently materials like vinyl type and 3D letters have become more affordable and can be seen in some signs. The creativity students display in the creation of signs is one of the aspects I really enjoy about this project.

Moe’s is a good example of a named flat, while it is currently without a sign, that has had a variety of signs in it’s 19 year history. The sign below was made using a cupboard door, this sign replaced a yellow skateboard (surely a reference to Bart’s skateboard on The Simpson’s?!) with “Moe’s” spray painted on it in black.


Moes, 89 Clyde Street (2013). 

Some students and landlords commission the construction of signs, usually from a commercial outfit, but a new (to me at least) market has emerged. Recently I met Jasper, a 4th year student, who for the last three years has been making flat signs on commission. Jasper constructs the signs at home in the family garage where he has access to tools and materials over the summer break, fitting this in while also working full-time.

He has a couple of years of flatting experience behind him, but his most memorable flat is his first which was named. We all know it – Pics’s Flat. Inspired by The V Flat across the road on Dundas Street, the flatmates approached Pics Peanut Butter for sponsorship. After consulting with their landlord Jasper created the sign which was screwed into the lintel over the door. This was the first sign he made; it has since been stolen.

Pic's Flat

Pic’s Flat, 108 Dundas Street (2014)

To date Jasper has made about 12 signs and has designed several more. He advertises at the end of the year on Otago Flatting Goods Facebook page and students usually approach him with a name in mind – he said the majority are interesting, unique names. Jasper consults with the residents, mocks up the design in Photoshop offering a couple of alternative designs and once it’s signed off, he builds the sign. Some of the designs can be fairly complex, like the Shrieking Shack (stolen last year) which involved using a jig-saw to cut out each letter. The Hoe-tel, another of Jaspers creations on Castle Street, was stolen and he remade the sign for the residents based on a photo they sent him.

Occasionally a landlord is also involved in the design process. Recently a pair of flats on Leith Street commissioned a flat sign (apparently the landlord’s idea); the sign-off on the name and design required the agreement of the 12 female residents (split across two flats) and the landlord. That flat is The Dolls House on Leith Street.

Flat signs collage

Collage of signs. Source Jasper Fawcett. Used with permission

Given that several of the signs Jasper has made have been stolen I wasn’t surprised to hear that he thinks the signs should stay with the flats. Often signs stay in-situ, sometimes students take them to their next flat where they may or may not be displayed. It raises the question why someone would steal student flat signs when they are so easily identifiable … is there a collector out there?

I was interested in Jasper’s opinion on why students name their flats. He said that in his experience, students leaving halls often first look for flats with names to rent because it’s cool to live somewhere with a name and it’s easier (and more fun) to refer to your flat by name than by street number. He believes most landlords are ok with the practice because it attracts students to the property. He feels that flat signs are part of the student culture here in Dunedin.

Students certainly do refer to flats by name and use them as a mechanism of way-finding. On my way in to campus to meet Jasper, I overheard a conversation between two students on Howe Street.

Student 1: “Are you doing anything tonight?

Student 2: “Yeah, I’m going to that party on Leith Street.”

Student 1: “At The Nunnery?”

Student 2: “Yeah.”


The Nunnery, Leith Street (2015)

Balcony collapse on Castle Street at Six60 gig

It’s the worst. It’s not something you ever want to experience or have anyone else experience, but it has happened. We often see students hanging out on roofs and balconies during parties, but this evening, during a Six60 gig on Castle Street, a balcony collapsed. Many people were hurt and nine seriously enough to be taken to hospital.

There’s been plenty of news and social media posting about the accident which I’ve collected here in this Storify.

I sincerely hope that everyone who has been injured will recover quickly and that they receive the support they need. Please get in touch with OUSA and Student Health Services if you need to, and do check in with your families.


Keeping in touch with home

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about correspondence and how mechanisms of communicating have changed over the last couple of decades. Since student flats have been named, students have communicated their contact details in a number of ways. In my first year in 1991 I went through a $5 packet of stamps a week and included my flat name as part of my return address, and I would received mail with my flat name on it too.

Between the 1930s and the 1970s some named flats (Ches Choux and The Spanish Slum) commissioned printers to create letterhead that stated their flat name and address. Occasionally like in the case of The Bach (1930s), the letterhead also included a crest and motto!


Another aspect of communication has changed, the telephone. In the 1960s and 1970s it wasn’t possible to list a name in the public telephone book for free unless it was a person, anything else incurred a fee. Smerch HQ, a flat on Cumberland Street in the 1960s that was named for the Soviet spies headquarters in Ian Flemings Bond novels, managed to fudge the system by pretending their flat name was that of one Howard Quentin Smersh (that’s medical students for you!). The residents of The Lunatic Fringe around the road on Leith Street weren’t so fortunate and missed out on listing their flat in the phone book.

In the 1990s, Telecom’s name numbers became popular. Moe’s on Clyde Street took advantage of this and registered their phone number as 477 MOES – you can see it in an OUSA student telephone book that was published at the time. Of course the advent of the mobile phone has meant many flats probably no longer have a landline. More recently, residents of named flats are more likely to create a Facebook page.

Social Media

Screenshot of the Facebook page for The Shit SHow Chateau

The Shit Show Chateau on London Street, voted OUSAs worst flat in 2012, created a Facebook page as a tool to communicate the progress they were making with renovating this slum property.

We have signed the official ‘Worst Flat in Dunedin’ as voted by the Mayor David Cull and former OUSA president Logan Edgar. With over 30 holes, unidentifiable stains on the walls and a damp stench it certainly lives up to the title.
Check out our journey as we turn this p-lab looking flat into a something less of a health hazard. It could even be warm, efficient and carbon friendly with the help of Generation Zero

A couple of other examples of named flats with Facebook pages have a slightly different purpose. The V Flat, Westie Pad, and Coronation Street Flats have not been named by students, but by companies (in one case, Pic’s Flat, it was the student’s idea). How students feel about living in sponsored or flats pre-named by commercial interests requires a more investigation.

As new forms of communication are developed, we begin to see their influence depicted on flat signs, and example is references to social media use. The only current example of this was  the flat name, The Libra Flat, on Harbour Terrace.  The sign employs a hashtag #ourpad (commonly used to create a thematic link between tweets, instagrams and Facebook posts) to mark this house as their home (our pad) as well as being a stunning pun on “feminine hygiene products”.


Social media has played an enormously important role in the development of this project – the extent to which will be the subject of a future blog post.