Monday, July 15, 2019

Otago's academics know what's best for us, so let's put them in charge

The thought often occurs to me that New Zealand could save itself a whole lot of money and political argy-bargy by simply handing over the governance of the country to the academics of Otago University.

They know exactly what needs to be done. They never tire of telling us. Barely a week passes without one of their number pointing how simple it would be, using regulatory tools, to create a Utopia here in our remote corner of the Pacific.

If only we listened to their advice, New Zealand would be a fairer, safer, healthier and more equal society. (Not freer, though, because freedom can get in the way of Utopian visions and must be strictly controlled by people who know what’s best for us.)

For starters, if we listened to the Otago academics, we wouldn’t be a nation of drunks and fatties. Marketers of alcohol and unhealthy food would be made to stand in the naughty corner. But alas, we’re all at the mercy of greedy, manipulative capitalists and politicians who are too cowardly, or possibly venal, to do the right thing.  

We’ve been reminded of this – yet again – over the past few days by the indefatigable Professor Doug Sellman and a bright-eyed colleague named Simon Adamson, who appears to have taken over from Sellman as director of Otago University’s National Addiction Centre. Their message is that the government, by refusing to act on the mental health inquiry’s recommendations for tighter alcohol controls, is pandering to liquor industry lobbyists. "You gotta follow the money and ask who's benefiting from the status quo," Adamson told Newshub.

Health minister David Clark brusquely dismissed the claim, saying he refused to dignify it with a response. Well, of course he’d say that; he’s obviously in the pocket of the liquor barons and their shadowy propagandists. What else could you expect?

Another tireless moral crusader is Professor Kevin Clements, who is described on the Otago University website as the founding director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. (One of the things universities do very well, along with generous sabbaticals, mutual back-scratching through academic exchanges and endless rounds of taxpayer-funded international conferences, is the creation of  grandly titled institutes for the pursuit of ideological hobby-horses.)

One of Clements’ shticks is gun control, so it was no surprise when he popped up at the weekend in a radio report about the government’s gun buyback programme. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that New Zealanders own twice as many firearms per capita as Australians and six times as many as Britons, “so on a per capita basis New Zealand is a fairly overgunned society” – the clear implication being that we’re dangerously addicted to firearms and for our own safety, we need much stricter controls.

But hang on a minute. Surely the crucial consideration is not how many guns New Zealanders own, but how often they are used to kill people or commit other criminal acts. That’s what matters.

Here the statistics are interesting. Wikipedia, which publishes what appear to be reputable figures on gun ownership and related crime, confirms that New Zealand has a high rate of gun ownership, as you’d expect in a country with a substantial rural population and a large hunting community.

But while we own 30 firearms per 100 people, which is high by world standards, our rate of firearm-related deaths (including suicides) is low: 1.07 per 100,000.

The figures make it clear there is little or no co-relation between gun ownership and deaths caused by firearms, other than, perhaps, in the US, where there are 120 firearms per 100 people and 19.5 gun-related fatalities per 100,000. 

Australia has 14 guns per 100 people – half as many as New Zealand, as Clements said; yet its firearms-related death rate, at 1.04, is only microscopically lower than ours. Other comparisons can be made with Norway (31 guns per 100 people, 1.75 deaths per 100,000), Switzerland (24 guns per 100, 3.01 deaths per 100,000) and Canada (25 guns per 100, 2.05 deaths per 100,000). In other words, despite Clement’s alarmist pronouncement, New Zealand measures up very favourably.

On the other hand, Venezuela has a much lower rate of reported gun ownership than New Zealand (18 per 100 people) yet a death rate even higher than that of the US, at 26.48 per 100,000. And then there’s El Salvador, often described as the world’s most dangerous country: 12 guns per 100 people, 44.45 deaths per 100,000.

Even allowing for the possibility that statistics from some of these countries may not be totally reliable, it’s clear that firearm ownership figures on their own, such as those cited by Clements, are virtually meaningless. I wonder, does it ever occur to credulous journalists, most of whom have university degrees so have presumably been taught critical thinking, to challenge supposed experts over the simplistic and misleading use of statistics?

Evidently not. They have been ideologically programmed not to challenge the left-wing orthodoxy that prevails in universities, where indoctrination and conformist group-think have supplanted intellectual inquiry and academic rigour.  

To return to my opening thought, just think how much simpler life would be if academics were given the power to rule us. The great appeal of their regulatory prescriptions for society is that they don’t have to be weighed against public opinion or put to the test in the real world. Neither are academics bothered by inconvenient notions such as the right of individuals to make their own choices about how they live, all of which can make parliamentary democracy untidy and quarrelsome.

Academics aren’t constrained by accountability either, because they don’t have to answer to anyone. Unlike politicians, they don’t have to worry about incurring the resentment of the people who pay their salaries and risk being tossed out of office.

Perhaps most appealing of all, if academics governed us there would be none of the acrimony which characterises parliamentary rule, since they all appear to agree with each other.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Taking a short cut to power

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, July 11.)

Sigh. Here we go again.

According to a TVNZ news report, Northland Maori are lobbying for greater representation in local government. Despite having one of the highest Maori populations in the country, Northland iwi leaders say the lack of Maori representation on district councils means Maori are not being heard.

Ngati Hine kaumatua Pita Tipene laments that local government legislation and processes are “shutting out our people”. Not for the first time, compulsory Maori seats have been touted as one possible answer. But the solution to the lack of Maori representation is achingly obvious.

According to TVNZ, Maori make up an estimated 50 per cent of the Northland population. It follows that if Maori candidates put themselves forward for election and persuade other Maori people to support them, Maori councillors will be elected. Weight of numbers will ensure that.

If Maori engaged more actively in local government both as voters and candidates, 50 percent of Northland council seats could be occupied by Maori – possibly more, since non-Maori voters are likely to support good Maori candidates, just as they have done elsewhere in New Zealand.

That 50 percent figure gives Northland Maori the potential to become highly influential and possibly even dominant in local government. The remedy is in their hands if only they choose to seize it. Isn’t that how democracy is supposed to work?

In the indelicate but admirably blunt language of Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis in 2016, Northland Maori need to get off their arses and vote. But some Maori leaders prefer to take a short cut to power.

We keep hearing that Maori are disempowered. They are “disengaged”, to use a fashionable term – too disengaged, evidently, to use the democratic rights open to every citizen.

The only possible solution, we're frequently told, is to create special mechanisms which would guarantee them a place at council tables, such as the creation of special Maori wards or the establishment of voting rights for unelected Maori representatives – as was disgracefully provided in law for Auckland City and adopted by the district council in my home town of Masterton, among other places.

What we’re really talking about here is power through the back door. The advocates of guaranteed Maori representation want to bypass the democratic hurdles that other candidates for public office must leap over.

The debate then becomes a philosophical one about whether Maori are so disadvantaged and demoralised that they must be given political rights not available to others.

The powerful counter-argument is that to grant special rights to any segment of the population, whether on the basis of race or any other factor, is a potentially lethal compromise of democratic principles, which hold that no group of voters should wield more power than others.

Ordinary New Zealanders obviously recognise this hazard, even if their elected leaders don’t. Every time well-intentioned but wrong-headed councils have pushed for the creation of Maori wards, they have been emphatically defeated in referendums. 

We’re told this is because we’re a racist society bent on preventing Maori from acquiring power.
But hang on a minute. The evidence shows that where strong Maori candidates put themselves forward for office, Pakeha as well as Maori voters will support them. Does that sound racist?

In the last local government elections three years ago, Porirua elected its first Maori mayor, Mike Tana, who beat a favoured Pakeha rival. Wellington acquired a Maori deputy mayor, Paul Eagle – now the Labour MP for Rongotai – and a new Maori councillor, Jill Day, who has since taken over the deputy mayoralty. Eagle, incidentally, had increased his majority in three consecutive council elections.

In those same 2016 elections, South Wairarapa voters elected three Maori to their district council. Napier gained a Maori councillor, Api Tapine, and Wiremu Te Awe Awe was elected to the Horizons Regional Council. All this happened without the benefit of separate Maori wards or other forms of special treatment.

No doubt there were other examples that I’m not aware of. I could also point out that two previous mayors of Carterton, Georgina Beyer and Ron Mark, are Maori, and that former rugby league star Howie Tamati served on the New Plymouth District Council for 15 years (yet contradictorily insisted in 2015 that New Plymouth Maori needed their own ward).

All of these people were elected by Pakeha voters. Racist? I don’t think so. The record shows that non-Maori voters will back good Maori candidates. But of course such candidates have to put themselves forward first, rather than wringing their hands in anguish over supposed Maori disempowerment.

Oh, and did I mention that there are 29 Maori MPs in the current Parliament, including 23 elected by voters on the general roll. Racist? Really??

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Not home, exactly, but where we came from nonetheless

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, other Stuff regional papers and on, July 10.)

“Welcome home,” I said to my wife.

Minutes earlier, our train had rumbled over the River Oder, which marks the border between Germany and Poland, although I didn’t realise that until we passed the next town. The sign on the station platform identified it as Słubice, revealing that we had passed from a Teutonic country into a Slavic one.

Jolanta corrected me, as she frequently does. “I never thought of Poland as my home,” she said, “any more than you think of Denmark as yours.”

She was right in the sense that although born to Polish parents, she never lived in Poland. Her parents were forcibly transported to Germany from Warsaw during World War Two to work in a labour camp and never went back. Jolanta grew up in Germany and emigrated to New Zealand with her family in 1965.

But in my defence, I was speaking figuratively. She’s undeniably Polish, after all; she grew up speaking Polish as well as German and regularly conversed in Polish with her mother, who died only recently.

So her roots are in Poland, just as mine – on my father’s side, anyway – are in Denmark. And while I’m not one of those people who become fixated with the minutiae of family history, one purpose of this trip to Europe was to connect with those roots.

For me, this involved visiting the towns my Danish grandparents came from and enjoying the very convivial company of distant Danish cousins. Similarly, for Jolanta it was a pilgrimage of sorts to Warsaw – although we had been there before – and an opportunity to re-establish contact with descendants of the few family members who had survived the war.

In Warsaw, by sheer coincidence, our hotel was only a short walk from No 2 Daleka St, the address of the apartment building where Jolanta’s parents were living when the Germans invaded in 1939, and from which they were evicted by Wehrmacht soldiers in 1944.

There’s no trace of the building now, because the Germans flattened the city as punishment for the ill-fated Warsaw Uprising and everything was later rebuilt. But we went there anyway, on a quiet Sunday morning, and just along the street came across a plaque marking the spot where 17 Polish civilians were shot in cold blood and their bodies burned. Such memorials are tragically commonplace in Warsaw.

We also took a bus across the Vistula River to the vast Bródno cemetery, a serene and beautiful place where Jolanta’s grandparents were buried in 1942. No trace remained of their graves, although they were still there when we last visited in 2002.

There was war in my family’s past too. Religious conflict drove my Protestant du Fresne ancestors out of France in the 17th century and eventually led them to the town of Fredericia, in Denmark, where Jolanta and I wandered around the simple but elegant church built by the French Huguenot community in 1735.

There are still du Fresnes living in and around Fredericia, although they use a different spelling: Dufresne. In the small town of Søvind we were lavishly entertained by the grandson of my great-uncle, who stayed in Denmark when my grandfather left for New Zealand in 1890, and his wife. Their daughter provided translation when needed. Most younger Danes speak good English; the older ones not so much.

Near Sønderborg, close to the Danish border with Germany, we went with another cousin, a Clausen from my grandmother’s side of the family, to the Dybbøl Mill – something of a national shrine, having been the scene of an historic battle between the Danish and Prussian armies in 1864.

Fighting raged around the Clausen family’s lovely old stone farmhouse, where Danish troops were accommodated. The house was severely damaged but was later repaired and still stands at the end of a quiet, leafy lane, only a short distance from where tourists swarm around the great mill and its impressive museum.

The Danes lost the war with Prussia, which is why some of the Clausens decided to emigrate to New Zealand. They didn’t want to live under Prussian (German) rule.

They settled in the Manawatu and are there still. Ironically, the part of Denmark that was ceded to Germany after the 1864 war reverted to Danish control after World War One.

My Danish relations were almost embarrassingly hospitable. A laughter-filled dinner at the home of another cousin in Sønderborg banished any notion of the Danes as a dour nationality.

So what’s the point of relating all this? Not much, I suppose, except that our European pilgrimage reminded us that all New Zealanders (yes, Maori too) are immigrants, or at least once were, and that many of our forebears came here to escape troubled pasts and start afresh.

It often took great courage, determination and resourcefulness. But most found what they were looking for here at the end of the earth, and that's something we should never take for granted.

Friday, July 5, 2019

An earlier rumination on architecture

As I was posting my recent column on Wellington buildings a couple of days ago, I remembered a speech I gave at a debate on architecture in Greytown in 2010. I dug it out of my files and was agreeably surprised to discover that I don't disagree with anything I said then, which is not always the case. For what it's worth, here it is:


I have to confess that initially, I didn’t quite understand the motion of this debate. The statement that architecture is the mother of all arts seemed just too abstract and esoteric, so my first inclination was to invoke Gary McCormick’s first rule of debating and ignore the motion altogether.  But then I did some research – which broke Gary McCormick’s second rule of debating – and discovered that the motion is based on a quote by the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

What he actually said was: “The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilisation." So when you see the quote in its entirety, you start to see where he’s coming from.

What I take from Wright’s statement is that our most potent and lasting symbols of culture and nationhood are not works of art, but works of architecture. And when you think this through, it’s inarguable.

Ancient Greece has no more recogniseable symbol than the Parthenon. Ancient Rome has no more recogniseable symbol than the Colosseum.

Entire civilisations are identified by the structures they left behind: Macchu Piccu in Peru, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Petra in Jordan – “a rose red city half as old as time”, in the words of the famous poem by John William Burgon.

France’s most potent symbol, one that’s instantly recognised worldwide, is the Eiffel Tower. And what could be more symbolic of Russia than the famous onion-shaped domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, which has stood at the very heart of Moscow since 1561, and still represents the apotheosis of Russian architecture?

Think of India, and you’re likely to think of the Taj Mahal. Moving closer to home, what image could be more representative of Australia than the iconic lines of the Sydney Opera House? And what could better exemplify the brashness and self-confidence of early 20th century American capitalism than the Empire State Building?

Speaking of which, how many of you knew the Empire State Building was completed in just 410 days? In New Zealand, you’d wait that long for a resource consent to build a chookhouse in your backyard. But I digress.

Buildings such as the ones I’ve just mentioned give people a sense of who they are and what they value. They are emblematic of their culture and society. What’s more, buildings belong to the people in a way that other works of art such as paintings and sculptures can never do. By their very nature they are public, enabling ordinary people to share a sense of ownership.

Architecture, it’s been said, is the art form that most impacts on our lives. It belongs to us all. We don’t just live and work in buildings created by architects; we walk among them and look at them every day of our lives.

That makes us all experts on the subject. I certainly consider myself an authority on architecture, by virtue of the fact that I was born in a building and have lived and worked in them all my life. If that doesn’t qualify me to talk with authority on the subject, I don’t know what does.

In fact I suggest that we should all reclaim ownership of the discussion about architecture from the architects, who have tended to control or at least dominate the conversation in the assumption that only they are qualified to talk about it. Events like this debate are a good way to start.

Now, I’ve talked about some of the iconic buildings of other countries and their importance as expressions of national pride. The question then arises, how does New Zealand measure up?

I think it’s fair to say that we have no equivalent of the Sydney Opera House. Okay, so it was conceived by a Dane – but it has been embraced by Australians, and it has come to symbolise boldness and audacity and opportunity. Can we say that of our own architectural icons?

I’m one of the many who believe we missed a golden opportunity to create an iconic building with Te Papa. It’s a brutal, unappealing building from the outside and doesn’t make any sense internally either. Fortunately as the native bush on its waterfront side has grown it has softened the harsh lines of the building – a reminder of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous quote that the physician buries his mistakes, but the architect can only advise clients to plant ivy to cover his.

The building that’s most often described as an instantly recogniseable New Zealand icon is the Beehive. But the concept was created by a Scotsman, Sir Basil Spence, and the building doesn’t say anything about us as a country. Its only virtue is that it’s distinctive. Internally, it’s appallingly impractical because of its shape. In fact it’s a classic reversal of the design dictum that form should follow function. Spence created his sketch and then left it to Ministry of Works architects to make it work, but of course it never did.

So what else have we got? Well, I checked on Te Ara, the website of the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, and it listed 12 buildings that it described as iconic. They range from the Hundertwasser toilets in Kawakawa to the Civic Theatre in Invercargill.

The Sky Tower is there – but although it’s emblematic, like the Beehive, I think of it as representative of Auckland rather than New Zealand. It’s has a dramatic quality because of its sheer scale, but I don’t know that anyone would describe it as aesthetically pleasing or inspirational. In any case, there’s little to distinguish it from similar “statement” towers in overseas cities.

Many of the other buildings on the Te Ara list, such as Christchurch Cathedral and the Rotorua Bath House, are colonial derivatives of British architectural styles. Even the lovely National Tobacco Company building in Napier is a knock-off of the art deco style that you can see in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Interestingly enough, the Te Ara list doesn’t include a building that is often cited as one that is unmistakebly unique to New Zealand because of the way it combines modernist design with Maori influences. I refer to the Futuna Chapel in Karori, which David Kernohan is going to talk about at greater length.

So we seem to be a bit impoverished architecturally, at least when it comes to public buildings. Perhaps, as Johnny Mathis sang, it’s just a matter of time.

The Roman architect Vitruvius thought buildings should raise people’s spirits, but you certainly couldn’t say that of a lot our corporate architecture. I regard buildings like the Majestic Tower in Wellington as Gordon Gekko buildings, after the character in the movie Wall Street. They are dominating and assertive but no more than that.

And there must surely be a special place in Hell for the architects who created the brutalist government buildings that rose in many provincial cities during the 1960s and 70s. I suspect that there once existed a secret government department called the Ministry of Architectural Abominations. There’s no reference to it in official records but we know it must have existed because we can see the evidence of its labours in places like Palmerston North, Napier, Nelson and Masterton.

I believe this department was staffed by draftsmen specially trained in East Germany, Bulgaria and North Korea. Their brief was to make provincial cities feel more important by putting high-rise buildings in their central business districts, whether the residents wanted them or not. 

The result is that virtually every provincial centre in New Zealand is blighted by at least one brutally ugly government building that towers above its neighbours and blends in to the cityscape with all the subtlety of an All Black prop in a corps de ballet. The very worst of them is the high-rise Nelson Post Office building, which would be my nomination for the title of ugliest and most incongruous building in New Zealand.

The people responsible for these atrocities should not go unpunished. Like war criminals, they should be hunted down like dogs and made to account for their crimes. They are the Slobodan Milosevics of architecture.

From my layman’s perspective, if there’s a definitive New Zealand style of architecture, it seems to be expressed more in our everyday domestic architecture. You could argue that the definitive New Zealand building, one that really says something about our lifestyle and our values and aspirations, is the humble Kiwi bach, which was celebrated in a television advertising campaign decades ago.

And again, from my layman’s point of view, it seems to me that if there’s an emerging character in our architecture it’s a certain eccentricity and playfulness. You can see this in the work of Ian Athfield, in Roger Walker’s Mews apartment development in Hataitai and in Hundertwasser’s toilets at Kawakawa. You can see it in the Puke Ariki gallery at New Plymouth, which looks as if it’s been built from driftwood washed up on the beach. You can also see it in the idiosyncratic building now taking shape at Wellington Airport, which has been dubbed The Rock.

Now, since I’ve touched on the subject of the New Zealand home, I’d like to say something about the ostentatious suburban homes known as McMansions, which are spreading like gorse over the hills of Greater Wellington.

It’s a strange quirk of human nature that as families get smaller, houses get bigger. New Zealand suburban homes have grown in inverse proportion to the size of the families inhabiting them, and to the sections they occupy.

Thirty years ago the average new house had a floor area of 127 square metres; now it’s 175. A typical new subdivision consists of large, ugly houses, typically occupied by two adults and one or two children, packed cheek-by-jowl on pocket handkerchief-sized pieces of land. But of course they have to have a double garage, preferably with enough room for the jet-ski that gets used once every summer.

These are symptoms of what has been labelled affluenza, a disease said to be running rampant in a society afflicted with terminal consumerism.

Oddly enough, a similar thing has happened with cars: engines have got progressively bigger and more powerful while interior space has diminished. In the mid-1980s, 40 percent of the cars on our roads had engines of less than 1.6 litres and the biggest-selling model was the Toyota Corolla. But when I last checked a couple of years ago, cars under 1.6 litres accounted for only 12 percent of the national vehicle fleet and the biggest-selling car was the 4-litre Ford Falcon.

When I was a kid, families of six would squeeze into a 1.6-litre Morris Oxford or Hillman Minx. The Morris 1100 was marketed as a compact family saloon. Now a 1.6-litre car is considered too small for anything other than a trip to the supermarket, and many 3-litre cars will accommodate only four adults.

Incidentally, can anyone here envisage a time in the distant future when today’s McMansions will be admired for their style? Housing fashions go in cycles and at some point most architectural styles become desirable again. The villa, the Californian bungalow, the art deco home, even the 1950s state house … they’ve all acquired a retro cool. But I’m going to stick my neck out and predict that no one in a few decades’ time is going to be desperate to acquire an early 21st century McMansion, even assuming they last that long. They look cheap and tacky now, and they won’t improve with age.

I’ll leave it there for now, Mr Chairman. I’ve strayed off topic a bit but I’m sure I’ve established beyond all shadow of doubt that architecture is the mother of all arts, even if, as a young and relatively immature society, we still have to look overseas for the most compelling evidence of that. Thank you.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Lacuna explained

Regular readers of this blog (all seven of them) may have noticed that nothing new has appeared since the end of May. That's because I've been overseas and I'm too lazy and/or technologically illiterate, when away from my PC, to post my newspaper columns as they are published. I'm now home again, which explains the belated appearance (below) of my recent efforts.

Contemporary architects have failed us

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, June 27.)

Earlier this year, France mourned when fire partially destroyed the Cathedral of Notre-Dame.

It was striking to see Parisians on their knees in the streets, praying and singing hymns – this in a country that was generally thought to have largely renounced Catholicism.

But it wasn’t just the French, or Catholics, who grieved. The world shared their pain, because Notre- Dame is acknowledged as one of Western civilisation’s architectural gems. Something about the sight of this ancient and glorious building in flames clearly touched even irreligious people.

The worldwide reaction to the Notre-Dame fire reminded us that buildings are important. Great architecture, like great music and great literature, has the power to inspire us. It’s also capable of making powerful statements about our history and culture.

So what great New Zealand buildings deserve to be celebrated? Er, not very many.

Of course we have no Notre-Dame, St Paul’s or Hagia Sophia, for the obvious reason that we’re one of the youngest countries in the world, in terms of human settlement.

But even allowing for that, our architectural heritage is pretty thin. Taking Wellington as an example, it’s hard to think of any building erected in my lifetime that evokes feelings of pride, still less awe. Lambton Quay, The Terrace and Molesworth Street are lined with monuments to dreary, functional conformity. There is no sense of vision or daring.

At best, Wellington has a handful of modern buildings that could be described as quirky. The Beehive – originally sketched on the back of a table napkin – arouses curiosity purely because of its novelty. It has minimal aesthetic appeal and must be cursed daily by the unfortunate occupants forced to work within its strictures.

Another famous oddball edifice is Roger Walker’s whimsical 1970s Park Mews in Hataitai – but again, it earned its fame as a conversation piece rather than for aesthetic merit.

On the rare occasions when an architect has created a modern building of enduring appeal, as John Scott did in the 1960s with Karori’s Futuna Chapel, it hasn’t always been treated with respect. Futuna was allowed to fall into disrepair (since rectified) and ended up hemmed in on all sides by town houses and barely able to breathe.

As for the significant public buildings that might be expected to make a statement about our values and aspirations, our architects have failed us.Te Papa, in its prime site beside the harbour, remains a slabby monstrosity that makes little sense inside or out.

And our supposedly “iconic” Supreme Court building, enclosed in a bronze thicket that’s intended to represent wind-blown pohutukawa and rata trees but looks more like tortured matagouri or a crown of thorns, is poorly served by its proximity to the elegant 19th century building that preceded it. The juxtaposition serves only to highlight the folly of contemporary architects straining for symbolism.

In fact look almost anywhere in the capital, and you can’t help but be struck by the contrast between buildings constructed in the latter half of the 20th century and those of earlier eras.

Sadly, some of those older buildings – among them the characterful Spanish Mission-style Midland Hotel – are long gone, but it remains true that the buildings which command our admiration today are mostly older ones. Perhaps even more remarkably, they have withstood earthquakes that rendered much newer structures uninhabitable.

St Gerard’s Monastery and Weir House are handsome buildings that make the most of their commanding locations. The latter bears the distinctive imprint of William Gray Young, who designed it in collaboration with Charles Lawrence.

Young left his mark all over the city, having also designed Wellington Railway Station, the Wellesley Club and the two-storeyed neo-Georgian gem in Kent Tce known as Elliott House.

Another architect who made an enduring contribution to Wellington’s architectural heritage was Frederick de Jersey Clere, who designed St Mary of the Angels and the lovely Wellington Harbour Board buildings that line Customhouse and Jervois quays.

Those who appreciate architectural aesthetics still admire these buildings. Will the same be true of structures such as the Michael Fowler Centre in 100 years’ time? I doubt it. The MFC looked outdated 10 years after it was built.  

And now it seems Wellington’s character homes may be at risk too, as the city council looks at ways of squeezing more people into a limited area of land. High-rise apartment buildings occupy a smaller footprint than old houses – but at what aesthetic price?

Just as the historic inner-city suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney give those cities much of their distinctive character, so Wellington’s older homes have a personality that its commercial and public buildings conspicuously lack. But with the city’s record of architectural vandalism, no one should assume their future is secure.

From Susan to Sadie: the constantly shifting public taste in names

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, June 26.)

What would you guess was the most popular name for baby girls in New Zealand last year?

I’ll give you a clue. It goes with Bronte.

Emily? Nope, that was the eighth most popular. The top spot went, for the second year in a row, to Charlotte.  

Charlotte Bronte, of course, wrote Jane Eyre, while her younger sister Emily gave us Wuthering Heights. But if the popularity of their names (Emily is consistently in the top 10) is due to the renaissance of the 19th century English novel, you might expect Jane to be in demand as a girl’s name too.

I say this because Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, arguably the book that did most to revive interest in classic English literature. Yet I’ve scanned the lists of popular girls’ names going back to 2000, and Jane is nowhere to be found.

All of which leaves us scratching our heads as to why classical female names such as Charlotte and Emily – not to mention Olivia, Emma and Sophie, all of which have topped the popularity chart in the past 20 years – should hold such contemporary appeal. None of these names would look out of place in a BBC costume drama.

And before you point out that Charlotte was the name chosen by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for their second child, which would explain a surge in its popularity, you should be aware that Charlotte also headed the list in 2006, 2013 and 2014, before Princess Charlotte was born.

Why am I writing about this? Because the constantly shifting public taste in names is an aspect of social behaviour that’s every bit as perplexing and unpredictable as changing trends in fashion.

In my childhood, boys were given names like Peter, Michael, David and John – solid, white-bread names, in line with the conformist, monocultural tone of the times.

Records show that these names remained predominant until the 1970s, when Jason entered the picture. In the 1980s Michael was still consistently popular but vied with Daniel, and in the following decade Matthew arrived on the scene. By the late 90s, Joshua was consistently topping the popularity rankings.

The noughties saw the arrival of Jack, Liam and Oliver. The latter name has been the most popular choice for male babies for the past five years.

Good luck to anyone trying to find a logical pattern here. Daniel, Matthew and Joshua suggest a biblical influence, but given the secular nature of New Zealand society, I suspect that’s entirely coincidental.

On the distaff side, Susan and Karen were the most favoured girls’ names for much of the 1950s and 60s, with competition from Sandra, Christine and Margaret. 

Lisa burst on the scene in the late 60s and Sarah ruled through most of the 70s and 80s before being toppled by Jessica, who pretty much owned the 90s. Then along came the Emmas, Charlottes and Sophies.

But the lists of the most popular names don’t tell the full story. Under the surface, other recent trends are apparent.

One is for kids to be given first names that look like surnames: Cooper, Hunter, Carter, Mackenzie, Bailey, Harrison, Riley, Harper. 

Another is the revival of female names that were considered unfashionably quaint even in my childhood – for example, Ruby (No. 1 on the popularity chart in 2011), Sadie, Chloe, Phoebe and Hazel.

In previous generations these names might have been considered an indicator of lower social status (remember Sadie the Cleaning Lady?), but they have acquired a retrospective chic among the upwardly mobile classes.

How do these trends originate? My guess is that it starts with someone deciding to be different by choosing a quirky or unconventional name for their baby, only to find that other people start imitating it. Soon, what was intended as distinctive and individualistic ends up being shared by thousands.

As with miniskirts for women and long hair for men in the 60s, what seems edgy and defiant today can be commonplace tomorrow.

Certainly the urge to conform remains potent. While there will always be outliers who buck the norm, in their choice of names as well as other things, most people feel more secure being part of the crowd. There’s safety in numbers.

And when all is said and done, perhaps there’s something to be said for being unimaginative. Because at the opposite end of the social scale from the Charlottes and Olivers there’s a growing preference for strange, made-up names which are typically multi-syllabic, often double-barrelled, and mostly unpronounceable. Some parents seem to give no more thought to the naming of their children than they might to the naming of a cat or dog.

Sadly, these names are likely to burden their bearers throughout life. Research suggests that people with invented names are statistically more likely to die young or end up in jail - not directly because of their names, but because of the social disadvantage those names signify. That's a helluva price to pay for having a unique moniker.