Saturday, August 21, 2010

We're still waiting for a Sydney Opera House

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 18.)

I was recently invited to take part in a debate about architecture. The motion we were debating was that “architecture is the mother of all arts” – a statement that had me stumped until I tracked down the original quotation in its entirety.

It came from Frank Lloyd Wright, probably the most famous of American architects, who wrote: “The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilisation.” Syntactically, it’s a bit clunky (Wright was an architect, not a writer), but you can see where he was coming from.

It set me thinking. What I took 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.

The Parthenon still stands as a memorial of ancient Greece, just as the Colosseum does of Rome. Entire civilisations are identified by the structures they left behind: Macchu Picchu 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 onion-shaped domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, which has stood at the heart of Moscow since 1561?

Think of India, and you’re likely to think of the Taj Mahal. And nothing could better exemplify the brashness and self-confidence of early 20th century American capitalism than the Empire State Building (built, remarkably, in 410 days - roughly the time it would take in New Zealand to get a resource consent for a chookhouse in your backyard).

Moving closer to home, nothing more readily identifies Australia in the eyes of the world than the iconic lines of the Sydney Opera House. Okay, so the building was conceived by a Dane – but it has been embraced by Australians, and it has come to symbolise boldness, audacity and opportunity.

Buildings such as these can give people a sense of who they are and what they value. What’s more, buildings belong to the people in a way that 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.

All of this got me thinking about how New Zealand measures up.

We certainly don’t have anything to match the Sydney Opera House for its architectural daring. We had an opportunity with Te Papa, and we blew it. What we got was a brutish, insensitive building, ill-suited to its commanding site. It's unappealing from the outside and doesn’t make any sense internally either.

The building that’s most often described as a New Zealand icon is the Beehive. But the concept was created by a Scotsman, Sir Basil Spence, and it doesn’t say anything about us as a country. Its only virtue is that it’s distinctive.

Internally, the Beehive is 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 (on a table napkin, the story goes) and then left it to Ministry of Works architects to make it work, which it never did.

Te Ara, the website of the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, lists 12 buildings that it describes as iconic. The Sky Tower is there, but although it’s instantly recogniseable, like the Beehive, I think of it as representative of Auckland rather than New Zealand. It has a dramatic quality because of its sheer scale, but I don’t know that it could be described as aesthetically pleasing or inspirational.

Many of the other buildings on the Te Ara list, such as Nelson’s Anglican cathedral, the Otago University clock tower and the Rotorua Bath House, are colonial derivatives of British models. Even the charming National Tobacco Company building in Napier, another on the list, was a knock-off of the Californian art deco style that was in vogue at the time.

Interestingly enough, the list doesn’t include a building that is often cited as unmistakebly unique to New Zealand because of the way it incorporates both modernist and Maori influences. I refer to the Futuna Chapel in Karori, designed by the late John Scott and shamefully neglected by the Catholic Church before being rescued by people who recognised its importance.

As for our corporate buildings, well … the Roman architect Vitruvius thought buildings should raise people’s spirits, but you certainly couldn’t say that of the glass and concrete towers in the Auckland and Wellington CBDs. I regard many of them as Gordon Gekko buildings, after the ruthless executive 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. These drab, East German-inspired edifices blend in to their surroundings with all the delicacy of an All Black prop in a corps de ballet.

If there’s a definitive New Zealand style of architecture, one that we can truly call our own, it seems to be expressed more in everyday domestic architecture than in showpiece public buildings. You could argue that the definitive New Zealand building, one that really says something about our lifestyle, values and aspirations, is the humble Kiwi bach, which was celebrated in a television advertising campaign several years ago.

And 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 and in Friedrich Hundertwasser’s public toilets at Kawakawa (not that I care for the latter). You can also 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, and in the idiosyncratic building taking shape at Wellington Airport, which has been dubbed The Rock.

Perhaps we just need to be patient. We are, after all, one of the youngest countries in the world; even Australia had a 50-year head start on us. By my reckoning, that gives us 13 years to come up with an iconic public building to match the one that was opened by the Queen on Sydney’s Bennelong Point in 1973.


Bearhunter said...

Nice piece. I often wonder how it is possible that the same country can come up with the likes of Putiki church (near Wanganui) and the classic 1920s villa and then turn around and erect an insult to the eye like the Palmerston North City Council building, a concrete and steel rendition of a factory ship running aground in the Square.

The probligo said...

:D Give me idiosyncratic every time.

Personally I like the Hundertwasser toilets for exactly the reasons that the building is so i''tic and organic.

Rather than start a pissing competition about who has the worst building (mine would be a close run thing between the Auckland Police Barracks and that awful hypodermic just down the hill from it) what about the best of what we have.

There is no need to compare Michael Fowler Centre with the SOH. It exists in its own right.

The DOC centre at Waikaremoana is showing its age, but it does fit with its environs better than many.

Sitting here thinking about it while I munch through my chemical noodles we only have ourselves to blame. When did Auckland, or Wellington, or Christchurch or Paeroa residents ever greet the idea of a major public building (like SOH) with anything other than derision and denial? We have what we deserve...