Four-colour collations, Gavin McLean

Michael Fowler’s University of Auckland
Michael Fowler,
Mallinson Rendel, $49.95

Nelson Observed; Portraits of a New Zealand Province
Christopher B Vine,
The Nelson Institute, price not indicated

The all-colour book of regional paintings and sketches used to be a mainstay of publishers’ lists. Time was when Reeds, McIndoe and most other self-respecting publishers had at least a Shona McFarlane or Colin Wheeler or two to tempt the trade. These books lost popularity when colour film improved and printers learned to make colour separations that line up the colours so that they no longer gave you the feeling that you had been out on the town the night before. Since then these books have been the province of the smaller presses, with Reeds being the only major house to flirt with the type. Now they seem to be making a minor comeback, with two new titles celebrating local architecture. Both are handsomely produced large-format books, sharply printed and crisply written.

Michael Fowler is no stranger to this type of book, having produced an earlier one on Canterbury eating houses. His task was made easier by the availability of Sir Keith Sinclair’s excellent history of the University of Auckland. Acknowledging his debt to the professor, Fowler concentrates on what interests him most, the architecture, fleshing it out with a thumbnail sketch of the university’s history and reminiscences of administrators and architects.

This is both the strength and weakness of the book. As the title should make abundantly clear, this is a highly personal interpretation. It wallows in good-humoured nostalgia. Fowler returns to his old university paying homage to the architects, dons and politicians he met later in life. As he sketches his way around the campus he champions favourites such as Roy Lippincott, whose once-maligned tower is now such a feature of the cityscape.

You can, of course, disagree with his views on the merits of individual buildings. That is, after all, half the fun of a book like this. I found very few typos (although I think that the Northern Club is a tad older than the 1967 date given on page 14). What this unashamedly biased Otago graduate cannot let go unchallenged though, is his assertion that Auckland’s campus is ‘far more a city university than its New Zealand peers … Otago and Victoria Universities, while on their original sites, are only loosely related, even visually, to the central city area.’As someone who has stood on both Queen and George streets recently, I know (1) which campus has buildings that you can see clearly from its low-rise main street and (2) which city often boasts more ‘scarfies’ than city workers on the main drag.

Fowler’s watercolours are accomplished rather than exceptional. Like most such works, they greatly understate that most important feature of the landscape, the human element. Fowler’s people are just props, like the trunkless stylised trees. My more serious reservation is the omission of a map, which would have made it easier to understand his comments on the limitations that the site imposed on architects and administrators alike.

They say that the sun always shines in heritage country. Christopher B Vine’s celebration of Nelson’s buildings is unashamedly parochial and positive. His last chapter acknowledges some significant recent losses, and he has time for some thoughtfully designed modern buildings, but the rest of the book celebrates the province’s older survivors, mostly basking under blue skies.

Vine actually casts his net further than the title suggests, sketching and painting everything from the Edwin Fox at Picton to West Coast mines and poppet heads. His text, both briefer and less didactic than Fowler’s, is nostalgic. He makes no bones about his preference for heritage architecture, writing simply and directly about the things and places he loves. Fowler published an illustrated essay whereas Vine has produced an artist’s sketch book.

The blurb’s claim that the book ‘makes no claim to be exhaustive; though with over 580 illustrations it may well be exhaustive’ underlines the book’s chief shortcoming. Vine has crammed in too much for his 104 pages. With up to eight or nine watercolours and pen and ink sketches fighting for your attention on the same page, the content overwhelms the design, becoming at times distracting and wearying. His watercolours, better than the sketches, would have looked better printed larger and with less happening around them.

In this respect Mallinson Rendel’s professionalism wins out, allowing Fowler’s 70 watercolours and sketches plenty of room to breathe. It confirms once again that half the impact from four colour printing comes from the white space around the edges.

 

Gavin McLean is a historian with the Historic Places Trust.

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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