Strength and integrity, Graeme McIndoe

Long Live the Modern: New Zealand’s New Architecture 1904-1984
Julia Gatley (ed)
Auckland University Press, $64.99,
ISBN 9781869404154

In this unashamedly celebratory volume, Julia Gatley has exercised a judicious eye in selecting and describing virtuoso architecture from all eras. Long Live the Modern is primarily about architecture, including the architecture of infrastructure and neighbourhood design. It has a broad geographical scope, with 180 projects from Whangarei to Invercargill. It includes sculpturally expressive structures such as Frederick Newman’s Roxburgh Power Station; cool modern buildings such as Gordon Smith’s War Memorial Hall in Wanganui, and Plischke’s and Firth’s Massey House; and modest yet sophisticated dwellings such as Miles Warren’s Dorset Street Flats, and James Beard’s Waikanae beach house. In these and others selected, the clarity of concept, spatial quality and resolution of detail that is the aspiration of all architects can be seen.

Although the title suggests this book will explore exclusively modern architecture, it includes many buildings and structures that, while influential, are decidedly not Modernist: Roger Walker’s Park Mews and Ian Athfield’s own house and office among them. This selection of works is explicitly based on a definition of modern as “new”, not “Modernist”, even though the two categories overlap. Richard Weston differentiated between modern and Modernism in his award-winning book Modernism (1996): “Being modern means being up to date, but being a Modernist is an affirmation of faith in a tradition of the new.”

The focus in Long Live the Modern is on both the best of the new and Modernism with a twist of New Zealand-specific cultural and site responsiveness. While a wholly appropriate intention and scope, this selection prompts reflection on what did not make the cut and why. Looking around our post-war towns and cities, we see the triumphs of architecture such as those shown in this collection, but we are also all too aware of the failures. Numerous excrescences have been justified by their designers with spurious reference to the principles of Modernism: for example “form follows function”, with a heavy emphasis on function and no consideration of form. Many clients and designers have selected from the menu of architectural Modernism, but through gross commercialism or lack of design commitment, have failed to consider the recipe. The result: debased building not worthy of being called architecture. To be fair, Modernism is not the sole generator of such buildings. Structures that are ungainly, stripped down and banal are built in any era, whereas the best of new and modern architecture as seen here has been an inspirational success.

However, admiration for the undoubted triumphs of modern architecture should not be extended to approval of the Modernist programme for town planning and urban design. Modernism was to reform society and the city. It promoted the abolition of the street, pedestrian-vehicle segregation, and building cities for speed and the motor car. Strict single-use zoning, requiring people to travel between work, home and recreation became the norm. The car was, and in many cases remains, the only practical means of transportation. The principal author of the Athens Charter, Le Corbusier, and his Modernist colleagues, were as persuasive in town and city planning as they were in architecture. While concentration at the city centre was promoted by the Modernists, their approach left a legacy of low-density sprawl and vehicle dependence which continues to thwart moves towards liveability and sustainability in the contemporary city.

Several of the town planning schemes included in Long Live the Modern are based on Ebenezer Howard’s garden city (and the garden suburb) rather than Modernism. Savage Crescent in Palmerston North, for example, was designed around a common green space to be a setting for life as opposed to being merely a land subdivision; it remains both popular and an exemplar for much contemporary neighbourhood design.

The examples of Massey, Waikato and Canterbury University campuses and the Victoria University of Wellington College of Education at Karori included here demonstrate that, with capable architects and the comprehensive site planning and design possible with a single landowner, the Modernist experiment of placing buildings in a green park-like setting could succeed. But, despite often fine architecture and landscaping, these single-use educational zones lack vitality and they fail both to properly contribute to and benefit from the city. And in city centres, all too often, the Modernist experiment of creating a city of “buildings in the park” was debased and became “the building in the parking lot”.

Recognising that many other sources and authors have covered New Zealand residential architecture, the content of Long Live the Modern focuses on the non-residential, although many exquisite houses are included. These typically demonstrate conceptual clarity, simplicity and sophistication. Conspicuously absent is the bloated, rampant consumerism and excess that is currently emerging within much popular dwelling construction.

Long Live the Modern (an apt title given Modernism’s penchant for bold directive statements), is a call to action. And for the architecture described, that call is wholly justified. In many cases the barbarians, those who would demolish or alter buildings without proper thought for their merit or significance, are at the gate. Raising public awareness and generating protection, as called for by this book, are severely needed. The author notes that an important criterion for inclusion here was that the building’s original design integrity has been retained. Even so at least one entry, Bill Alington’s very fine Wellington Meterological Office, signals the risk faced by these buildings, as it has suffered from maintenance-induced cultural vandalism. Here, vertical concrete fins originally placed to control sun and wind established a delicate visual rhythm around the facade. But after showing signs of rust, these fins were summarily removed rather than repaired. Kanuka-green coloured panels beneath the windows, which embedded the building in its site atop the Wellington Botanical Gardens, were replaced with an acid blue panel: just why is not apparent.

This is a scholarly work by an author with impeccable credentials, assembling a who’s-who of architectural, heritage and academic contributors to make a carefully crafted catalogue. It does not provide a detailed critical overview, although both introduction and individual contributions include persuasive critical content. Authority in the individual building citations means that this book is not to be trifled with if used to help make the case for retaining and respecting modern cultural heritage. The short succinct description and analysis for each building is allied with fine black and white photographs and, in some cases, a floor or site plan. Rarely seen images of, for example, the Auckland Harbour Bridge and the Beehive under construction bring another dimension to our understanding of the accomplishment of these structures.

While whetting the appetite for more, the content is nevertheless pitched just right in a comprehensive catalogue such as this. Eloquent and highly readable throughout, it is a reference book, likely to be dipped into rather than read from cover to cover, although its chronological ordering of projects allows the development of New Zealand architecture during the modern era to be readily followed. For the general reader, a glossary with a mix of the everyday terms of architecture and the arcane language of architectural specialisation is provided. It complements other works such as Justine Clark’s and Paul Walker’s Looking for the Local: Architecture and the New Zealand Modern (2000), and David Mitchell’s and Gillian Chaplin’s The Elegant Shed: New Zealand Architecture since 1945 (1984).

The book celebrates and calls for us to value the best architecture of any era, an approach which can be justified for a number of reasons. The first is to promote the advance of culture; new ideas and new explorations are necessary. The second is to continue the influence of the best of Modernism in architecture; the examples described here have a strength and integrity from which we can learn and are based on concepts which deserve ongoing exploration. The third is to ensure that examples of architectural excellence are treated respectfully, whatever their age.

Long Live the Modern admirably fulfils one of its intentions: to draw attention to the value of these fine buildings and structures. But it will go only part of the way towards realising its second intention of raising public awareness, and probably only with the architectural cognoscenti who already recognise and value buildings such as these. In order to reach the wider public in an increasingly visual culture, a television series of the book is needed. But, in the meantime, Long Live the Modern stands as a comprehensive catalogue of cultural achievement, a valuable reference for all interested in the best of the buildings we live in and use in New Zealand, and compelling evidence in support of our contemporary architectural heritage.

 

Graeme McIndoe is a Wellington-based architect and urban designer involved in the design development of Wellington and Auckland waterfronts. 

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Posted in Architecture, Non-fiction and Review
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