Brave new worlds, Ian Lochhead

Vertical Living: The Architectural Centre and the Remaking of Wellington
Julia Gatley and Paul Walker
Auckland University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9781869408152

The very notion of so rapid and wholesale a change to a city’s fabric … is a high-risk undertaking, not unlike performing open-heart surgery with a Kango hammer. The feverish uncoordinated fingers of the city’s many, self-appointed quacks have ripped out flesh and transplanted organs with almost total disregard for the patient’s ability to survive in any recognisable form. Not surprisingly, the city is bleeding – badly – with many of its inhabitants in deep, post-operative shock.

The city described here in the late Gerald Melling’s memorable prose is not, as you might think, post-quake Christchurch, but Wellington in the 1980s, following the rash of demolitions and rebuilds that had occurred in less than a decade. In Christchurch, the demolitions have been much more sudden and the rebuild will take much, much longer, but the experience for the city’s inhabitants has been similar. Melling’s analysis of the impact of sudden and dramatic urban change points to the contradiction that lies at the heart of the Architectural Centre’s contribution to the evolution of Wellington city over the 60 years since its foundation. Founded in 1946 by a small group of young architects inspired by the progressive vision of the International Modern Movement, the Architectural Centre’s early mission was to transform what they saw as an architecturally backward, provincial city, remote from the centres of architectural innovation in Europe and America. Only later in its history did the Centre’s members realise that the successful development of cities is as much about respect for the past as planning for the future.

Many of the centre’s early members were architectural students, although membership was, from the start, always open to anyone with an interest in and concern for architecture and the visual arts. Not surprisingly, one of the Centre’s earliest activities centred around architectural education, at a time when young architects could still begin their training as an apprentice in an architect’s office while completing testimonies of study for assessment by the staff of the Architecture School at Auckland University College. In order to help these students prepare for their final years of study in Auckland, the Architecture Centre developed a wide-ranging programme of evening lectures that, by 1949, had become the Wellington School of Architecture and Town Planning. The School’s town planning courses were the first in New Zealand and anticipated the introduction of a town planning programme at Auckland University College by almost a decade. In 1956, the School’s programme was absorbed into the Wellington Technical College’s Building Department and School of Architecture where it continued to operate until 1964. For an essentially part-time teaching programme with no government funding in its early years, this was a remarkable achievement. The Centre had effectively created the conditions that led to the establishment of the country’s second architectural degree programme at Victoria University in 1973.

As part of its wider educational programme, the Centre ran a series of summer schools that allowed students returning to the city after their academic studies in Auckland to further their understanding of their chosen profession. The theme of the second Summer School of Design in 1947-8 was “Te Aro Replanned”, an idealistic response to the slums and urban chaos of one of Wellington’s oldest areas. The outcome of the students’ research and analysis was presented in an exhibition, which opened at the City Library on 24 February 1948. It attracted over 20,000 visitors, was widely reported and later toured to Auckland and other North Island centres. “Te Aro Replanned” wiped the slate clean (much as the CCDU Blueprint has done for central Christ-church more than 60 years later), and replaced the accumulated structures of the previous 100 years of urban growth with a pristine area of Modern Movement designs of steel, glass and concrete. It was effectively a transposition of Le Corbusier’s 1925 “Plan Voisin” from Paris to the antipodes, and would have swept away Te Aro’s timber villas, its diversity of architectural character and removed any sense of history. As the urban historian, Norma Eveson, has written of Le Corbusier’s proposal, “the proposed city appeared to some an audacious and compelling vision of a brave new world, and to others a frigid megalomaniacally scaled negation of the familiar urban ambient.” Much the same could be said of “Te Aro Replanned”. It is already being said of the new Christchurch.

If the redesign of Te Aro was one of the Centre’s most controversial proposals, perhaps its most enduring contribution to the architecture of the 1950s was its publication, Design Review, which ran from 1948 to 1954. Unlike the short-lived journal, Planning, produced by the Architectural Group in Auckland, Design Review appeared regularly and set a high standard for its articles and graphic design. Recent buildings by Wellington’s most progressive architects were featured, but the magazine’s remit encompassed the visual arts as a whole. This appeal to a wider readership probably helped to ensure its success. (All 29 issues are now available online from the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection.)

Perhaps as a sign of the times, the last issue of Design Review in April 1954 featured a photograph of the interior of Old St Paul’s on its cover and included an article by the architect, Jock Beere, “A Plea for the Preservation of St Paul’s, Wellington”. With the completion of the new Anglican Cathedral, the future of Frederick Thatcher’s old St Paul’s was then in doubt. Beere’s article is symptomatic of the growing realisation that New Zealand did possess architecture that was worth preserving, and the questioning of the persistent colonial mindset that all buildings are temporary and will be replaced with something better sooner or later. It is a measure of the increasingly Janus-faced nature of the Architectural Centre that it could celebrate the value of Old St Paul’s timber Gothic in the same issue as it reported on Brenner Associates’ rigorously modern house for the Auckland painter, Milan Mrkusich.

The Architectural Centre Gallery, which opened on Lambton Quay in June 1953, had a similarly wide-ranging exhibition programme, providing a venue for artists to exhibit their works before the establishment of dealer galleries in the following decades, as well as acting as a focus for the Centre’s public education campaigns. One of these was the promotion of town planning, beginning with the Living Cities exhibition in 1954. The Centre’s president in 1958, George Porter, led the campaign to make town planning a political issue and was elected to the Wellington City Council in 1959, serving for five terms. His successor as president, Bill Toomath, continued to promote the Centre’s commitment to town planning, and when the City Council commissioned the American firm of De Leuw Cather & Co to produce a transportation master plan that threatened to cut swathes through the city for a motorway and one-way streets, an alternative “Precinct Plan” by Centre members James Beard and Al Gabites forced a rethink of the Council’s scheme. By continually engaging with planning issues, the Centre was a catalyst for the much wider public interest group involvement with planning matters that has now become the norm throughout the country.

The Centre has been fortunate in its choice of historians to retell its diverse and distinguished history of engagement with the development of Wellington over the past 60 years. By choosing to focus on a series of broad themes, arranged chronologically, Gatley and Walker have avoided the potentially stultifying policy of institutional histories that attempt to follow every path and byway of an organisation’s development. Nor is this a book that will be of interest to Wellington readers alone, for the wider issues raised have relevance to all our cities. How can cities change in an orderly and considered way, taking account of the interests of the broadest possible range of citizens, creating opportunities for new developments while recognising the value of heritage and the importance of preserving a sense of continuity? An essential part of this complex and continuously evolving process is the ongoing involvement of public interest groups such as the Wellington Architectural Centre. For local and, increasingly, central government politicians, such groups can be seen as potential troublemakers that slow down the implementation of policies that are all too often conceived in haste to serve political expediency. With further revisions of the Resource Management Act mooted for the coming year, groups such as the Architectural Centre and the Civic Trusts of Auckland and Christchurch need to ensure that their standing is not eroded. The re-planning of Christchurch through the introduction of unprecedented centralised powers and with a minimum of pubic consultation should be a warning to everyone concerned about the future of our cities.

Ian Lochhead is associate professor of Art History at the University of Canterbury.

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Posted in Architecture, Non-fiction, Review
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