Built-in anodyne, Hamish Keith

Architects at Home — 30 New Zealand Architects and their Houses
Adrienne Rewi & Euan Sarginson
Shoal Bay Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0 908704 32 1

The Bungalow in New Zealand
Jeremy Ashford
Viking, $34.95, ISBN 0-670-85673-8

Wellington’s Old Buildings
David Kernohan, photographs Tony Kellaway
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0 86473 267 8

Buildings to Enjoy
Lewis E Martin
Dunmore Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0 86469 253 6

We treat urban architecture very much like the weather: subject to much speculation, prediction, historical analysis and idle chit chat. It is something on which nearly everyone has an opinion but, as to its outcomes, it is regarded as being entirely beyond human reach. As much as we might complain of its effects on our lives or rage at the architectural forecasts, humorously called artist’s renderings, regularly offered by the media, no one is actually held responsible for its countless urban crimes.

As worthy or as dull as the books in this little group might be, they collectively demonstrate a want of criticism from which the New Zealand-built environment suffers in the extreme. There is plenty of complaint, of course, personal and public, but in that criticism is generally intended to have positive outcomes, there is virtually none of it.

I suppose David Kernohan’s guide to old Wellington, should be seen as criticism. The descriptive text is readable and scholarly but it seems an analysis strictly reserved for past effort — rather like reading tree rings or pollen counts in Antarctic ice, to establish the pains and pleasures of seasons past. We all know all too well how drawing attention to architectural heritage is a red rag to a developer’s bulldozer.

The same on a domestic scale might apply to Jeremy Ashford’s fascinating history of the suburban love affair with the bungalow.  This lovely piece of work makes a brave attempt to place an architectural style in a social context, putting war, plague and town planning as much in the driving seat as fashion or whim. But, like Old Wellington, it has the built-in anodyne of history. If anyone is to blame or praise he or she is long gone.

The story of the New Zealand house is to a very large extent the real story of the country. Think, for example, what a wonderful social artefact was the original state house and how the decline of its aesthetic perfectly tracks the decline of the caring state. Before the advent of infill housing, how clearly, at the intersection of villa and bungalow, the social archaeology of the city was revealed. There is a great story in that contrast; the crude frontality of the villa with the cautious, half-concealed entrance of the bungalow and all the various front doors in between.

Architects at Home also focuses on the New Zealand house and in its approach sums up the sorry situation of contemp-orary architecture. This is not a bad book. In fact it is a very handsome one. Adrienne Rewi and Euan Sarginson have a good eye and a good grasp of why what they are looking at is good architecturally. Rewi is an occasional bright spot among the generally less talented crew who cover the same subject for the Sunday Times, though what she presents here is on another planet from the outraged villas and garish paint jobs so much enjoyed by that newspaper’s writers.

In substance, though, there is not much difference. The 30 houses are very personal pieces of work and, as opinionated as their authors are, no great architectural truths emerge. Of course that is not what the book set out to do and the authors and their publishers cannot be really held responsible for a want of architectural criticism in our lives. They offer classy architectural gossip and the titillation of the inside of our betters’ houses. Would-be house builders could get a fair steer; as much of architects to avoid as architects to employ.

Lewis E Martin’s contribution to this group hardly deserves a mention. It is difficult to believe that stiff grey drawings are any better than stiff grey photographs. That such a work could be published is, I suppose, at least a demonstration of the widespread belief among us that in the business of commercial architecture dogged donkey work is an often welcome substitute for talent.

Since 1901 the balance of the population has been increasingly urban. It was often said in the 1970s that we were the most urbanised population in the world. Yet hardly anyone, save a chauvinist city councillor, could point with much pride to our urban architecture. Our cities bear an uncanny resemblance to a collapsed Mexican wave at Eden Park: a whole bunch of unruly individuals setting out to do something together and failing miserably.

We do not lack architects. Even our cities have a few fine moments attesting to that. But we lack as a culture any general sense of architecture. Perhaps our history is to blame, or a three-generational love affair with the private motor car. Whatever the reason, there is something fundamentally wrong with our notions of how a built environment might work.

In a recent article in the business section of the New Zealand Herald a writer made some comparisons between two of the city’s most recently opened apartment hotels. The bathrooms of one, he pointed out, were situated by the front door, as far as possible from the bedroom and you could not turn the shower on without getting wet. Poor design, poor plumbing, but also something worse: a complete failure to take into account the end-user. It is in its way a wonderful parable for the architecture of the New Zealand city.

The chaps and chapesses who daily shunt from the basement carpark to the penthouse boardroom constitute one kind of client. The passerby who may never go into the building is another. The use of the building by both is entirely different but in urban terms it is the passerby who in the end is the larger client and the most effected and the least considered. The new urban dwellers may dwell in paradise above the first floor but what good will it do them if their front doors create a slum of concrete carpark walls?

More than the glories of the individual building, urban architecture is compounded by relationships: thresholds, littorals, the bits in between. The collective sadness felt when yet another grand old heritage building bites the dust is as much to do with the shattering of a familiar urban texture as it has to the loss of particular spaces.

In an essay in Te Maori, Hirini Moko Meads describes the grid of names and stories placed on the landscape, which provides meaning, order and stability to human existence. While it might come as a surprise to councillors and developers, the same kind of grid lies over our cities and, however subtly, provides the same basis for our urban lives.

As the invisible and deadly hand of the market firms up its grip on the collective throat, the chances for some realisation of an architectural sense in our cities retreats even further. The vast folly of Auckland’s proposed Britomart centre provides a perfect example: a public project, on public land, underwritten by public funds, yet the key elements, the ones of which the public benefit and interest will depend, are presented in the council’s scheme either as architectural abstractions or as patches of green (no doubt to be mistaken for grass) discretely labelled “proposed building”.

Of course, the Auckland city planners and property managers are not in the business of designing what will be private developments. But they are in the business of ensuring the public interest is alive and well and protected on the interface, a public duty on which they are ominously silent. In these silent spaces urban architecture happens or it does not. If town planning had a plan for nothing else, its purpose would be well served by a plan for this.

There is an active public engagement in the internal arrangements of what are narrowly defined as public spaces. There is little or no engagement along the littoral which defines them physically, other than some faint-hearted acknowledgments of wind and shade. Yet, from a pedestrian point of view, look along Queen street, Lambton quay, Colombo street or George street and ask where really is the cutting edge of urban architecture?

Like the weather, urban architecture is experienced as something that simply happens. The truth is that it is something that is done to us and it ought not to be done without a vigorous and effective measure of public debate and challenge. Those may be their buildings but these are our cities. It is the meaning and order and stability of our lives that the grid they collectively comprise defines.

Hamish Keith is a cultural odd-job man

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Posted in Architecture, Non-fiction and Review
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