Looking for the Local: Architecture and the New Zealand Modern
Justine Clark & Paul Walker
Victoria University Press, $59.95,
Publishing architecture is never easy. Partly this is a problem of trying to accommodate within the medium of words and photographs the three-dimensional building, with its spaces, shadows and textures, and the thinking underpinning the design. We cannot fit the world into a book, unless it is a book the size of the world. A book will always have a limit, and sooner or later this must come to the attention of any hopeful architectural publisher, snagging like a poorly finished timber post as it is brushed past.
How to publish a book on New Zealand’s modern architecture? Should it be a broad survey including all sorts of buildings – providing they meet the right criteria – in sufficient numbers so that they reveal by themselves the essential nature of New Zealand architecture? Or would sheer quantity flatten the field into sameness? Perhaps it would be better to choose a selection of projects that best exemplified New Zealand architecture, although this would necessarily be limited. And what buildings show New Zealand architecture at its best? How is New Zealand’s architecture to be defined?
It was questions like these – and others – that preoccupied members of Wellington’s Architectural Centre in the late 1950s as they compiled material for a projected book that would promote the cause of local modern architecture both here and overseas. Trying to answer them provoked an irresolvable editorial dispute that became one of the factors behind the eventual collapse of the project. The book was never published. All that resulted was a bundle of notes, lists and memoranda, and a collection of photographs that was simultaneously extraordinarily extensive yet incomplete, with whole regions of New Zealand architecture apparently not yet surveyed, and work by architects considered significant somehow not included. All of this was stored in a box at the Alexander Turnbull Library, presumably for decades. And it is this editorial dispute, and the struggle to articulate a definition of New Zealand architecture, that form the starting point and subject matter of the first part of Looking for the Local; a selection of photographs comprises the book’s second part. The result is emphatically not an attempt to publish the original book, but rather examines the broader issues about New Zealand architecture and its representation that surrounded the Architectural Centre’s project.
Another timber post appears as the subject of a series of conversations recounted in Looking for the Local. Authors Justine Clark and Paul Walker tell how Nikolaus Pevsner, an internationally renowned architectural historian and editor at the British Architectural Review, was taken on a tour of a modern house that New Zealand architect William Toomath had designed for his parents. Pevsner considered a post propping up a carport corner “crude”. Toomath suggested the post was, rather, “straightforward”. This was not inappropriate for a young country of pioneering stock breaking away from the frills and ostentation of European tradition. Back in Europe, Pevsner reported that he found New Zealand detailing crude, but admitted that perhaps his own prejudice prevented a proper appreciation of rawness and vitality. Local publications reviewing the Architectural Review continued the debate of crudity versus straightforwardness, which quickly snowballed. Vigour or decadence; honesty or cultural nihilism? By the 1990s, an assessment of the role of the primitive in 1950s New Zealand art would remove the specific architectural references. “A post holding up a carport,” note the authors, “… evolved into a generalised cultural condition.”
As well as suggesting the sheer earnestness of the time, this story highlights a number of the broader issues coolly examined in the book’s first part. Toomath’s reply about “straightforwardness”, for example, was one of a number of characteristics of New Zealand architecture that had been derived from selective analyses of pioneers’ buildings. But the “pioneers” themselves were, in a sense, a relatively recent import: previously, New Zealand’s early inhabitants had been known as “settlers”. As the authors point out, “pioneers” not only expressed a different attitude to site and landscape. “Pioneers” also hinted at a local connection with the handful of internationally famous modern architects tagged the New Pioneers; and they referred to the history outlined in one of Pevsner’s own books, Pioneers of the Modern Movement.
Subtle inflections such as these were important. Within the international phenomenon of modern architecture, local distinctiveness had to be identified and promoted, lest New Zealand’s modern buildings not be properly recognised and instead dismissed as mere copies, or inadequate versions, or both. Subsequently, local architectural history was examined for the fine distinctions that would assist in presenting modern architecture as the historically inevitable culmination of local tradition, and thus truly indigenous (despite appearances sometimes to the contrary).
As the authors make clear, the repercussions from this mythologising process are still present today. Some of the Architectural Centre’s constructions of local history have, in a way not dissimilar to the career path of the timber post, become generalised cultural conditions. They are especially evident in which histories are written, and which are not.
This is all unexceptionable, and analysed in considerable detail. However, Looking for the Local is really two books. The second, larger part contains a selection of original photographs of built work, culled from the Architectural Centre’s research. The book’s division into these two parts is one of its more striking aspects. The authors declare themselves more interested in the issues surrounding photographic representation; the actual photographs are included as a “parallel text”. But parallel lines never meet; and thus an essay concerned with the compromises and reductions inherent in publishing projects, which consistently emphasises what has not been published, barely acknowledges its companion volume, a series of photographs published with virtually no commentary at all.
This book is either a neat solution to the Architectural Centre’s dilemma of survey or monograph – publish both – or an elegantly designed demonstration of the irreducibility of architecture to the book. Either way, Looking for the Local, as it is, exemplifies beautifully the problem of publishing architecture. And so it seems, finally, that while Looking for the Local has been published (unlike its predecessor), in certain senses it remains unpublished, literally out of print – like the local, amorphously there, but somehow just always beyond our reach.
Meghan Nordeck is editor of Interstices, a journal of architecture and related arts.