Pinning down New Zealand architecture, Christoper Vine

Looking at the Architecture of New Zealand
Terence Hodgson
Grantham House, Wellington, 1990, $39.95

Though architecture is the most public of the arts and lays claim to being the mistress of them all to boot, it is ill served by the media. The very ponderousness of the subject seems to make for heavy books. Terence Hodgson’s previous book, Fire and Decay, an architectural ‘In Memoriam’ was well done, and I hoped to be enthused by his latest offering to the architectural muse, Looking at the Architecture of New Zealand.

I found it somewhat indigestible. His selection has been true to his title, in the Ruskinian sense anyway. That Victorian worthy saw architecture beginning where mere building, to him an unadorned and purely utilitarian concept, left off. With the sole exception of one State house, this book bypasses most of what makes up the New Zealand scene. The agricultural, industrial and the less pretentious do not qualify. The sod, cob and freestone early buildings, the great stone warehouses of Oamaru or Timaru, the terrace houses of Dunedin, the corner pubs of Auckland to name simply a few, merit no inclusion. A large proportion of the subjects could just as well be in Bristol or Bombay. There is much emphasis on churches, and while this no doubt was a true reflection of the religious zeal of many early colonists, I find eleven of the twenty-eight illustrations covering the first thirty years disproportionately ecclesiastical. The pictures however, are excellent and usually contemporary with the birth of the building. Cost presumably precluded colour, which is a loss.

The truism of the ‘whole being greater than the sum of its parts’ is nowhere truer than in architecture. Removed from the hills they pepper, Wellington houses are often unremarkable, but in the context of street and locale they gain immeasurably. I could find only one streetscape in the whole book, a splendid view of Invercargill Crescent. In the same vein the ‘woods for the trees’ analogy is apt. We are given a close-up view of individual trunks but the context is missing. To strain the metaphor, trees also have twigs, and though frequent mention is made of ‘attention to detail’ and ‘good componentry’ (a word of which my dictionary is thankfully ignorant), there are only two photographs, neither in close up, of the wealth of ornamentation that was the very essence of much pre-1914 work. For instance a view of Dunedin’s Grand Hotel is fine, but a shot of one of those weird encrustations on the first floor, a hybrid of Caryatid and Herm, would have been both more relevant and more fun.

Any anthology of this kind is bound to be personal, but I have to take issue with the decision to write a half page apologia on Darth Vader’s pencil box (alias the BNZ mausoleum in Lambton Quay) while ignoring the adjacent Michael Fowler Centre completely. Idiosyncratic? Maybe.

Stylistic influence is the stock in trade of architectural historians. At the risk of being tedious, I suggest that the debt owed by St Andrews-on-the-Terrace, unlike its more interesting namesake in Auckland’s Symonds Street, is surely not to Wren but to Vanbrugh or Hawksmoor. I would quibble too over the statement that St Mary of the Angel’s being of reinforced concrete made possible the thinning down of tracery, since it is quite nonstructural. The tendency to splatter architectural terms around as seasoning for the verbal soup works in moderation but at least one should get them right. Does anyone really care that ‘the prickly decorations’ on Napier’s Public Trust Buildings are ‘known as acroteria’? In my book they’re called ‘antefixae’!

I should however commend the author’s temerity in bringing the story up-to-date: verdicts are so often reversed with the wisdom of hindsight, so many authors fight shy of getting too modern for fear of becoming dated. Much effort has been spent in verifying the attributions so the text at times reads like an architectural who’s who. The taxonomist’s approach is evident also in the attempt to pin each beetle neatly in its appropriate box, even to the point of having an appendix, with occasional new categories such as ‘Stripped Classical’, ‘Early Monumental Concrete’ and ‘Detailers’ identified. Being a disorganized person I find these categories of limited value, but they could be handy for architectural student essays.

I lost count of the number of times phrases such as ‘almost siege-like’, ‘almost apologetic’ and ‘almost extreme decoration’ were used. The oddest, ‘the almost secular use of coffers and saucer domes’ had me fogged, as I cannot imagine what makes these unecclesiastical. Also ‘slightly Ziggurat’ – a Neo-Mesopotamian maybe? This sounds extremely nit-picking, but curiously for all its painstaking effort, the impression left by this book is just not the New Zealand I see. The operation may have been successful but the patient seems to have died along the way. Mindful of the Chinese proverb of the greater influence of pictures, I could have done with more of them, even at the expense of text.

 

Christopher Vine qualified as an architect, specializing in the conservation of historic buildings in Europe. He has written numerous articles, mostly on old New Zealand buildings. He also makes murals and other embellishments for buildings.

 

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