(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, 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.