R.A. Lawson: Victorian architect of Dunedin, by Norman Ledgerwood (Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust, 2013), 256 pp., $74.99
New Zealand’s Lost Heritage: The stories behind our forgotten landmarks, by Richard Wolfe (New Holland, 2013), 192 pp., $49.99
Converted Houses: New Zealand architecture recycled, by Lucinda Diack, (Penguin, 2012), 207 pp., $65
On a Saturday Night: Community halls of small-town New Zealand, by Michele Frey and Sara Newman, photography by John Maillard and John O’Malley, (Canterbury University Press, 2012), 295 pp., $45
Athfield Architects, by Julia Gately, (Auckland University Press, 2013), 310 pp., $75
Now that central Christchurch has been characterised by a signature architecture of collapsed masonry, around which the quarrel about whither the Garden City? is as yet so much hot gravel shovelled into a void, the New Zealand city with the best claim to the finest extant chunk of Victoriana is Dunedin, and the most remarkable of the soaring spires at Dunedin’s stony core are the work of one architect: Robert Arthur Lawson (1833–1902).
In R.A. Lawson: Victorian architect of Dunedin, Norman Ledgerwood’s well-paced and nicely-illustrated monograph, which also has a succinct contextualising Foreword by Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, justice is done to Lawson’s vast oeuvre, following on from detective work by art historian Peter Entwisle which helped establish that Lawson was involved in designing about 445 building projects, mostly in Otago and Southland but also in Melbourne.
Lawson was a virtuoso of form: an alchemist who possessed the secret of turning the prose of building into the poetry of architecture. In his mastery of a repertoire of shape and ornament, using an eclectic range of styles derived from Greek, Roman, Italian Gothic, French Renaissance, Palladian, Baroque, etcetera – gradually revealed over the four decades that he practised as an architect – he steadily manifested the idealism of the Victorian mind in the most far-flung of Queen Victoria’s colonies.
Lawson, born in rural Scotland, trained as an assistant to the Edinburgh architect James Gillespie Graham, who in turn had worked with Augustus Welby Pugin, the catalyst for Gothic Revivalism in nineteenth-century Britain. Lawson emigrated to Melbourne in 1854 and, on the voyage out, as well as conducting religious services and preaching sermons, spent his time making a design for a church in the Gothic Revivalist style. This became the basis for his winning entry in the 1862 competition to design the first Presbyterian church in Otago. Lawson arrived in Dunedin from Melbourne to establish an architectural practice in mid-1882, at the height of the gold rush.
First Church, whose Early English Gothic bulk still asserts a European medievalism transported holus-bolus as if by sailing ship, was erected between 1868 and 1875, following a delay while a hill was partly levelled to create a commanding site in Moray Place. Here stands a realisation of A.W. Pugin’s architectural theology of truth: form expressing material, layout expressing purpose, silhouette expressing plan, ornament expressing structure. Or, to put it another way, from the ground-hugging vault of the nave, harmonious gables, pinnacles and towers lead the eye up to the main roof and the high steeple pointing to the heavens and the greater glory of God. Gravitational thrust has been turned to aesthetic advantage as monumental stonework climbs to be made graceful and delicate.
First Church is Lawson’s first masterpiece, but it was soon joined by others, though, as architects know, great buildings often experience a difficult gestation. Ledgerwood outlines various sagas and manoeuvrings. Lawson was responsible for the Wesleyan Trinity Church (now the Fortune Theatre), Knox Presbyterian Church, Otago Boys’ High School, Larnach Castle and Dunedin’s Municipal Chambers, among other outstanding constructions. Lawson’s surviving banks are also distinguished: blocks of geology weighted with gravitas and relieved by Corinthian columns, like ancient Roman or Greek temples, as for example the former ANZ Bank (now Stilettos Revue Bar) on Princes Street, which is based on the Temple of Castor and Pollux in Rome.
Much of Dunedin’s Victorian heritage was badly compromised in the middle years of the twentieth century when, Ledgerwood tells us, ‘modernisers’ launched an attack on ornamentation and exterior decoration. In the early 1960s, the chief engineer for the Dunedin City Council tried to get the entire Municipal Chambers, fronting the Octagon, torn down, and a start was made with the top part of the clock tower. It was not until the 1980s, when the iconoclastic fervours of ‘modernisation’ had receded, that the Council with new members instituted restoration as a policy.
Robert Lawson left Dunedin for Melbourne in 1890, partly because of the economic depression and a downturn in building, and partly because of the structural problems arising from the building of the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum in North Otago. He and his wife returned in 1900 when he was ailing, and he died suddenly of a heart attack two years later.
The story of what happened at Seacliff has become the stuff of legend, and Richard Wolfe includes an account of it in his nation-wide survey of twenty ‘forgotten landmarks’: the accessible, illustrated and carefully-researched, if sometimes over-dutiful, compendium, New Zealand’s Lost Heritage: The stories behind our forgotten landmarks. Construction began in 1878 on what was to become the largest built structure in New Zealand (designed by late-period Lawson in a Scottish Baronial style that represented Victorian New Zealand at its most forbidding and grandiose). But even while the building complex was nearing completion, it had become apparent that the site had been inadequately surveyed. As floors and walls began to crack and shift, this was blamed on inadequate drainage and poor building design. Later investigations revealed, however, that that particular stretch of the coast was prone to slippage and slumping. The central part of Seacliff Mental Hospital was finally declared unsafe and evacuated in 1957, though major demolition wasn’t completed until the early 1970s.
If New Zealand’s Lost Heritage affords a chance to trot out a few iconic structures which have fallen victim to arson, decay, neglect or natural disasters, the author does inevitably miss a few out. Though it could perhaps be claimed that the dust has not yet settled on heritage demolition occasioned by the sequence of Christchurch earthquakes in 2010–2011, another notable Victorian ‘lunatic asylum’, Sunnyside Hospital, designed by Christchurch Gothic Revivalist architect Benjamin Mountford and demolished in 2007, vanished from the cityscape with little outcry and goes unmentioned in this context by Wolfe. Likewise, significant buildings felled in Wellington as a result of earthquake-prediction edicts.
That said, the architectural specimens exhibited in Lost Heritage are all valuable and interesting. Nineteenth-century lost heritage includes Admiralty House near present-day Britomart, Sir John Logan Campbell’s gracious house ‘Kilbryde’ in Parnell, the Victoria Arcade building in Queen Street, the Nelson Provincial Government Building, and Invercargill’s Dee Street Hospital: ornate structures, one and all – the Victorians loved embellishment; simplicity equated with poverty, especially in mercantile Auckland.
Wolfe is at his best writing about Maori structures, such as Rangiatea Church, built under the direction of Te Rauparaha in Gothic Revival style (1848–1851) at Otaki, and burnt to the ground in 1995 (though rebuilt to the same specifications); and ‘Hiona’ at Maungapohatu in the Urewera, which Wolfe describes as ‘one of the most remarkable buildings ever erected in New Zealand’. A double-storeyed wooden circular temple and meeting house built in 1907 by the millennial prophet Rua Kenana, it stood for around ten years, ‘as remote in location as it was short-lived’. Kenana himself ordered it taken down after his return from imprisonment for sedition.
One of the salient features of a book of this kind is its potential as polemic, but Wolfe has opted instead to be mostly an easy-going populist, talking buildings up with adjectives like ‘remarkable’. Only in discussing buildings demolished in Auckland, where he lives, does he seem passionate to the point of anger: the unnecessary demolition of the Victoria Arcade, the disappearance of Partington’s Mill (industrial heritage) from the Karangahape Road ridge, the hasty demolition of His Majesty’s Theatre and Arcade during Auckland’s speculative boom of the 1980s, the even hastier demolition of the Arts-and-Crafts Movement house ‘Coolangatta’ in Remuera in 2006, bowled in just eighteen minutes ahead of a possible restraining order: ‘Nothing inside the house – not the furniture, the family records, or the quality kauri, matai, rimu, totara and jarrah timber – was salvaged.’
So, obliquely, the author actually does zero in on the egregious actions of property developers, town councils and governments, while also tacitly acknowledging the role of communities: pragmatism and urban regeneration versus vanishing national heirlooms. In this way he confirms several things: architecture is a kind of conspicuous and public conversation between generations; architecture is about moods and feelings; architecture is determined by taste and bias.
In Converted Houses, Lucinda Diack explores how talismanic buildings – a former Public Trust building, a chapel, a grain silo, a train station, a petrol station, a cottage once attached to a flour mill, a cheese factory, a council building – divested of their previous uses, have been renovated and repurposed as domestic dwellings. Illustrated by large and sunny colour photographs, here is the happy neo-colonisation of colonial architecture, signalling how buildings have the ability to change if well-designed and well-made. Rooted in the landscape as redundant emblems of imperial subservience or perhaps changing economic conditions, symbols of other times and other customs, they often emit a mysterious sympathy: more weathered and ‘wiser’ than their owners – or chronologically more mature at least.
There is a danger in fetishising the rustic, the bucolic, the nostalgic, but respectful sensitive adaptions, recycling buildings into a second life, offer a metamorphosis that enacts preservation and conservation as an organic process. Dwelling places turned into hybrid entities not at war with the past, possess rich narratives, multi-layered. Some buildings here do not seem to have fully resolved all their tensions, while others, such as the former petrol station, with its roof overhang reminiscent of Mies van der Rohe’s rectangles, defiantly flaunt their contradictions. All in all, Diack and her photographer Daniel Allen catalogue a memorable collection of ‘character buildings’.
A tract of land is a tract of history, and inevitably these days surmounted by a building that summarises that history. In New Zealand the vernacular landscape we mythologise is that of bush, scrub, tussock, forest, creek, gully, hill, mountain, lake, while the building that dominates it is usually some form of shed – and sometimes that shed expands into a community hall.
In On a Saturday Night: Community halls of small-town New Zealand, the hall serves to memorialise frontier towns, early settlement and the continuity of the provincial. There is a parallel here with the Maori marae, but it is not one explored by this book. Instead, it is part oral history, part research and part evocatively photographed architectural evidence of the rural community as an ideal. The rural–urban drift however has always made that ideal somewhat precarious and fragile. And the authors’ account of one community hall in northern Southland expresses something of the latter-day precariousness: ‘Most dairy farms are staffed by workers who know they will only be in the area for a short time, so they show less interest in the social activities that used to be held in the hall.’
Many of the halls featured were erected in the glory days of the late nineteenth century, when the district culture of bushmen, timber-mill workers, miners, pioneer road developers and farmers was at its height. Halls were built using the best of native timbers and were entirely utilitarian structures intended for functions ranging from country supper get-togethers to political meetings to boxing matches to flower shows to, of course, dances. The photographs usually reveal splendid dance floors. Recalling the dances of yesteryear, one Hawkes Bay local mentions that: ‘Etiquette required older girls never to refuse a dance, whoever was asking.’ The mind boggles. And Waipawa Hall in Hawkes Bay was used as a picture-theatre: ‘At a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, someone smuggled live birds into the theatre and released them to add drama.’ Thus the reminiscences waltz in and out.
The hall was an asset in a district, alongside hotel, store, railway line and sawmill. Most consisted of a big room with a lean-to housing kitchen facilities and toilets. The photographs herein generally show simple decorated spaces where pastoralists, musterers, shearers, cow-cockies and their families could gather, and often still do gather, to yarn and catch up. Fund-raisers organised by charitable trusts, or just an ad-hoc committee, paid for repairs, maintenance and additions. Thirty-nine halls in total are presented and the impression is that they were knocked together by local builders. Only one, it seems, was designed by an architect. Hororata hall, west of Christchurch, was designed by noted Christchurch Arts-and-Crafts Movement architect Samuel Hurst Seagar, and his legacy can clearly be seen in the elaborate timberwork of the roof interior – if ever one glanced up, during the first waltz, the supper waltz or the last waltz.
For some halls, then, there is a drawn-out process of gentle decline and decay, becoming hayshed or just nailed shut; for others the weddings, farm auctions, garden club and line-dance meetings continue.
What the concept of ‘community’ might mean and how it might be practically applied has also been a long-time preoccupation of the architect Ian Athfield, arguably the Noah of contemporary New Zealand architecture, building an ark, or series of arks, to test out his visionary approach. While not quite proselytising for the master in her large-format book Athfield Architects, Julia Gately is undoubtedly a well-informed fan, who intrepidly ventures into the sprawling expansive oeuvre of Athfield and his band of directors, associates, designers and other functionaries.
She explains first how he got to the leaping point of setting up his own firm in July 1968 after working for other architectural practices, before she goes on to examine, commission by commission, all of his important works, the built and the unbuilt, as well as a number of others with which Athfield Architects has been involved.
Gately reveals Athfield as an architect who has continually reinvented himself decade by decade, but at the same time as an architect who has always stood for an attitude, a particular way of making. First, he was determined to acknowledge that architecture is where we live, the most fundamental art form: shelter is as primal as the cave of consciousness. Second, he was determined to acknowledge that architecture is also a kind of fiction, always edited: sometimes discretely, sometimes brazenly. Third, that architecture is necessarily combative; that it is a struggle over contested territory, with the architect striving for a solution or resolution.
Though sometimes sounding a bit punch-drunk, a bit battle-weary, he’s an architect who has produced a number of what might be called Athfield apothegms – sassy soundbites: ‘Our responsibility (as architects) is to the public which has to endure our buildings a bloody lot longer than most of our clients.’ And: ‘The context of a building is probably more important than the building itself. The space left over after a building is built has to be as positive as the building itself.’
Pugnacity goes with the territory, but while Athfield began as the very model of a maverick architect, nothing was done without purpose or point. That spirit of restless experimentation, of new beginnings that might restore the best of the archaic, a romantic idea of community, has registered most strongly in the public consciousness with his unique Athfield House, the encampment of brilliant-white stucco shapes that steps down a hillside in Khandallah, a Gulliver to its Lilliput-sized neighbours – indeed, to hear some tell it, it is the House That Ate Khandallah, a habitation that has been unfolding and effervescing across its surroundings from 1965 to the present. Beginning with a Beatlesque bang, this Wellington equivalent of a Yellow Submarine carrying on into the bright future that was the 1970s is Athfield revealing like a seer or prophet the dream-life of a house: what the New Zealand house, if encouraged in its desires, might become.
Later, he was to make other structures confirming architecture as a form of play, as in for example the insouciant yet revelatory wit of First Church of Christ Scientist (1980–1983) in Willis Street. But where Athfield has become increasingly important is in his skill at urban renewal: making-over run-down factories by turning them into apartment blocks, and revitalising public domains such as Wellington’s Civic Square. Knitting together structures and contexts, Athfield alerts us all over again to the role of architecture in creating fables, allegories and social meanings. Pushing at boundaries to emphasise what he calls ‘the spaces-in-between’, he follows a thread that might be called holistic, intuitive, interactive – or else a kind of idealistic pragmatism.
In some ways his ‘village’ concept seems particularly suited to Wellington, but organic linkages expressed in works in Waitakere City and elsewhere suggest they are also transportable, though not perhaps just yet to Christchurch, where a clash of architectural ideas has recently been played out, with broken buildings as giant chess-pieces on the chequerboard of the CBD.
The best of Athfield testifies to a valiant battle against what Rem Koolhass characterised in 2000 as ‘Junkspace’: that is, anodyne corporate architecture, ‘big box store’ architecture, the calculated exploitation of the commons, of communal space, through various expressions of faceless power controlled from elsewhere. Yet, equally, as an apostle of urban renewal he has run up against the clanking steam engines and whiffling windbags of the Christchurch heritage industry, unable to see over the top of their own dogma. Though appointed Architectural Ambassador to Christchurch in mid-2011, he found himself sidelined and stonewalled, standing among the rejects alongside the Wizard. He walked away from the position eighteen months later. It remains to be seen if the malled-in ticky-tacky city centre, matched by suburbs with roads leading to more malls, which he has prophesied, will come to pass.
DAVID EGGLETON is editor of Landfall and of Landfall Review Online. He lives in Dunedin.