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.


Roger said...

The Nelson building is bloody ugly but the NZ winner of the ugliest public building is surely the Palmerston North City Council building, that straddles a road and intrudes into the Square, which looks like it was designed by a Soviet architect out here on sabbatical. In my view, the second best public building in Australasia is the Auckland War Memorial Museum. For once a large NZ public building is not scared of the scale or grandeur of its site. And while the Beehive is not the greatest of buildings the mix of public buildings it sits in combination with - the old government building (now the law school), parliament, the general assembly library and the Railway station are arguably the best combination of public buildings in Australasia.

Hilary Taylor said...

Dunedin railway station is pretty impressive, the Government Building in Wgtn as Roger mentioned is the largest wooden building in the Sthn hemi Dad used to tell me, the 'Christchurch School' pioneered by Warren & Mahoney & Beaven since the 60s gives ChCh it's own feel in both residential and commercial, fine example lost since the quakes of course, Brutalism featuring here too, Ilam campus is the nicest campus in the land I think.