The sparkling, the homely and the cool, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins

Built for Us: The Work of Government and Colonial Architects, 1860s to 1960s
Lewis E Martin
University of Otago Press, $49.95,
ISBN 1877276642

We Call It Home: A History of State Housing in New Zealand
Ben Schrader
Reed, $39.99,
ISBN 0790009978

Exquisite Apart: 100 Years of Architecture in New Zealand
ed Charles Walker
New Zealand Institute of Architects, $79.95,
ISBN 0476013666

Pete Bossley Architects: A4 New Zealand Architects Monograph Series
The New Zealand Architectural Publications Trust, $79.95,
ISBN 0958262519

To a reader used to the world of fiction or of a less specialised non-fiction, the field of architectural publishing can seem a little perplexing. Assumptions made using guidelines useful in fiction can prove very misleading when applied to books about architecture. Take for example that bane of the literary world – vanity publishing. The sure signs of the vanity press at work in fiction, besides poor prose and a lack of editing, are lower-end production values and the absence of a recognisable publisher. Yet in architectural publishing the reverse is often true, vanity publications are characterised by polished prose and very high production values; what’s more, the names of specialist architectural presses, be they here or overseas, are not generally well known – the name on the spine can be a highly unreliable guide.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that architectural writing and publishing has developed as something of a sub genre in New Zealand. Mainstream publishers have generally remained shy of architecture books and for a long time the publication of a book on New Zealand architecture was a rarity. In part this is because the readership for such books was thought to be limited, particularly when balanced against the high cost of producing a suitably illustrated text. However, an increasing popular interest in architecture – particularly that of the 20th century – has seen a significant increase in architectural genre publications worldwide. As a result New Zealand publishers are, slowly, becoming more willing to consider local architectural texts. The appearance of four new books – Built for Us, We Call It Home, Exquisite Apart and Pete Bossley – suggests that architectural writing has now hooked up with the mainstream, but does this make the field any easier to navigate?

Built for Us, We Call It Home and Exquisite Apart all essentially concern themselves with architectural history. This is a field that has been very strong over the last decade with a substantial amount of new work emerging from the research-driven pens of local academics. Yet with a few exceptions – Looking for the Local (2000), Frederick H Newman (2003) and Ernst Leschke (2004), the last two by offshore publishers – this writing has remained in circulation only through conference proceedings and those small-scale publications in the architecture schools and the more informed practices.

The reason that little of this research has reached the wider public lies in the climate of mutual distrust that has developed between architectural writers and publishers. The academics fear the impact that writing for wider audiences might have on their standing as academics (new rules that grade academics give higher rewards in reverse order to size of audience reached). Similarly publishers distrust academics with opaque writing styles and obscure obsessions. However, if you look for it, architectural history writing in New Zealand is vigorous – despite the exodus of many of its leading lights to positions in Australia over the last few years.

Having said that, Built for Us is probably the antithesis of the sort of work currently being produced in academic circles. Lewis E Martin is a retired architect, and this is his fourth book on the subject of New Zealand architecture. Indeed Martin is something of a one-man survivor of an earlier period in architectural publishing, producing books of a type – illustrated with pen and ink drawings – that were very much in vogue 30 years ago. Through the 1970s and 1980s, volumes like this appeared in bookshops, and the accompanying prints usually appeared in galleries – both were snapped up by home decorators for walls and coffee tables. The subject matter was usually the quaint old buildings of Thorndon, Merrivale or Parnell. Yet Martin differs from the likes of Michael Fowler or Grant Tilley in that much of Built for Us is devoted to 20th century architecture and to see it rendered in this unexpected way is somehow refreshing.

Because of the charm of its illustrations it would be easy to dismiss Built for Us as a picture book. Yet there is real research here. As a result, it is the sort of book through which readers unaccustomed to architecture might be opened up to it, but at the same time it also offers something new to the expert reader.

Take for example the way that Martin brings the work of Robert Adams Patterson, the most obscure of government architects, to attention. Patterson, who occupied the office of government architect between 1942 and 1952, inherited the job at a difficult time: New Zealand was at war, and the government and the profession unsure just how to progress the idea of modernism. Patterson took a gentle approach emphasising elegance and restraint – epitomised in a series of post office and hospital buildings in Te Kuiti, Hokitika, Feilding and Christchurch. Paterson’s oeuvre is not large but it shows an architect with a sophisticated handling of form and scale. It is the highlighting of these, and other buildings that have yet to break through into the public consciousness as good architecture, that are the strength of Built for Us.

The front cover of Built for Us illustrates a similar scene to the back cover of We Call It Home: A History of State Housing in New Zealand, an illustration of the fondness with which New Zealanders regard state houses. It’s not that everyone wants to live in one, some aren’t even willing to admit to having grown up in one, but they accept the rightness and importance of the programme as defining what was once good about New Zealand. Ask what constitutes the typical New Zealand house and nine times out of 10 the answer is – the state house. There is clearly a demand for a traditional architectural publication on the state house, full of plans and glamorising photographs of the state housing programmes heroic period. We Call It Home is not that book.

The front cover illustrates the Nysse family outside their state house home in Miramar (theirs is the first one – the one Savage famously carried furniture into) and it’s probably only in the Nysse family living room that you’ll see this book displayed on the coffee table. Yet the image is perfect for a book that sets out to tell the history of a social programme rather than simply of an architectural type. Ben Schrader skilfully balances architecture and social history in a text that examines the way that architects once put their talents to work housing those New Zealanders who might otherwise have had trouble housing themselves. Schrader has the gift of narrative, although at points he is knee-capped by the “break-out boxes” beloved of book designers, which disturbs readers mid-flow. Schrader’s excellent writing deserves better design.

Both Built for Us and We Call It Home focus on the community that uses architecture as much as they do on the architects that produce it. They examine the way New Zealanders relate to buildings, be it a home or a post office, in our day-to-day lives. They discuss the relevance of architecture as it relates to the community’s idea of who we are as New Zealanders. Anyone looking for something similar from the centennial history of the New Zealand Institute of Architects’ Exquisite Apart will be disappointed. That professional organisations become isolated and inward looking is not unusual. Yet Exquisite Apart presents architecture as something that occurs in isolation without context. Here, as the Kiplingesque title suggests, architecture must, to be admired, be separated out from daily experience and seen as a sparkling jewel.

A sense of separateness flows through Exquisite Apart, and although it utilises a number of newer architectural historians, the message is that they need not have bothered. In one essay, Sir Miles Warren asserts that “modern architecture arrived in Auckland in the 1950s”, an old chestnut long since overturned. Warren may have first encountered modernism in Auckland, but it arrived almost 15 years earlier – and was by no means an “Auckland” thing. Other authors fall into the same amateur traps and of the older practitioners here – Warren Toomath, Mitchell and Cook – only Toomath frames his work for what it is: memoir. Professional architectural historians Deirdre Brown (on Maori), Gill Mathewson (on women) and Albert Refitti (on the Pacific) make strong contributions, but the dated official tone and clumsy design of Exquisite Apart means it is in danger of remaining unread.

Charles Walker, the editor of Exquisite Apart, shows up again as a contributor to Pete Bossley Architects, but the only real contributor to this text is Bossley himself. Walker, Tom Heneghan and Miriam van Wezel are there to ask questions of Bossley in interview-style essays. Indeed the only antidote to Bossley’s own voice is that of Emeritus Professor Mike Austin, who provides the three pages out of the total 125 that could be described as analytical. Although one gets the impression that every word in Pete Bossley Architects, including Austin’s essay, was ticked off by the book’s subject before making it to the reader, Austin does manage to sneak in mention of the problem at the heart of this book and of Bossley’s work. Austin observes that as a student Bossley was one of a group that “thought itself unique, original and radical mostly because it was opposed to the commercial establishment.”

However, as history often proves, timing is all and Bossley’s emergence into practice as a self-proclaimed “unique, original and radical” architect in the mid-1980s coincided with new interest in contemporary domestic architecture by those who had grown rich on stock market speculation. Bossley proved not to be at all opposed to the commercial establishment and indeed rapidly became its favoured son. Although Bossley’s works have always been framed as anti-establishment radical cool, there’s little evidence in support. Bossley is not so much the rebel without a cause as the rebel who specialises in housing multi-millionaires in houses that represent an altogether different New Zealand from that of the state house and the New Zealand we recognise as ours. For those who haven’t already seen these picture-perfect houses in the pages of the glossy nesting magazines, this slick corporate brochure gives an opportunity for readers to catch up, but it misses a bigger opportunity.

It is perhaps too much to ask a successful mid-career architect like Bossley to submit his commercial practice to independent criticism and discussion through a largely self-funded publication. Yet at the same time it is impossible for an architect to become significant to the culture, as Bossley – architect of Te Papa, the proposed glass coffin for Sir Peter Blake, and a re-built Colin McCahon house – so clearly wants to be, without going through a fairly rigorous process of critical discussion. Bossley may yet still turn out to be one of New Zealand’s significant architects, but we won’t know till we’ve had a chance to slug out the complex politics that surround Bossley’s work in a public forum.

Then and only then will we know if this stuff has the longevity of, say, the works of Robert Adams Patterson – who at this point looks like offering Bossley a serious run for his money. It would be nice to think that the forum for that discussion might be a local architectural publication, but it seems unlikely. Instead you’ll need to watch out for the academic papers and small critical publications that will emerge as historians and writers of the ilk of Martin and Schrader or Brown, Mathewson and Refitti turn their attention to the last two decades of the 20th century.

 

Douglas Lloyd Jenkins’ At Home: A Century of New Zealand Design won the Montana Medal for Non-fiction in the 2005 Montana New Zealand Book Awards and was reviewed in our last issue.

 

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Posted in Architecture, History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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