Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Vertical Living: The Architectural Centre and the Remaking of Wellington - Julia Gatley & Paul Walker - Auckland University Press

In 1946 a group of students and idealists got together to realise their visions for a modern city. Over the following half century, the Architectural Centre they founded helped to shape the possibilities of modern life in urban New Zealand and profoundly influenced the remaking of Wellington.
But this partnership was more than just an association of architects, the Architectural Centre had a plan, a manifesto it was a teaching organisation and it even fostered a magazine –Design Review.  It chose to support and curate  modernist exhibitions in its own gallery, and was even behind an ambitious, audacious campaign for political influence called ‘the Project’.  The group were influential players in Wellington's town planning, and advocated for better design  Its members also built a demonstration house.  They were activists in heavy tweed and black polos and their projects were the face and shape of the Capital for many years.  Over all that time from the early period of post war New Zealand Julia Gatley and Paul Walker have been in the back ground keeping tabs on their progress and successes, with Vertical Living being their testimony.  It's a history of urban Wellington from the 1940s to the 1990s and beyond.   
This is a wonderful survey of the city.  I particularly enjoyed the aerial photos of the city in the 40's, 50's and 60's.  These are images of Wellington that I've never seen before.  And I was reminded of how much destruction the 80's building boom, especially that lead by the Chase corporation, brought to the Capital.  I wonder, though given the Council's strict earthquake strengthening policy how much of that heritage would remain, how much would be rubble even now, following recent tremors. 
Also, I wonder about the onset of modernist.  Government architect Ernst Plischke.was responsible for some of the most innovative, yet austere and penitentiary designs Wellington had ever seen.  If you want an example of how Modernism was intended to provide a bright future of hope but instead condemned its citizens to the worst of banality and mediocrity then look no further than the Lower Hutt Municipal Buildings and surrounding Gardens.  The design was supposed to bring a fresh coat of paint to the post war suburbs.  And similarly, Public State housing was the same.  Yet these buildings have not aged well.  They might be well built but they lack personality, are breath volumes about conformity and our psyche that will cut down all tall poppies, slash any one that wants to over express their creativity.  Interestingly Plishcke was a European, new to our shores, with modernist ideas from Le Corbusier and Gropius.  Yet, with a smaller budget and less grand thinking the push for new machines of living condemned the public tenants of Dixon St flats to hideous prison cells, lacking storage and room from our ever expanding clunky appliances and furniture. They are impractical and confining.  They go against the Kiwi dream of the quarter acre pavlova paradise.  
This book reminds us that, in modernist ideology, architecture and urban planning went hand-in-hand with visual and craft arts, graphic and industrial design. I was also reminded, especially when looking at the chapters on the 80's and 90's that we have a city ready to embrace the 'latest' and to learn from the past and take what we need to shape the future.  I was also reminded that raw commercialism and capitalist greed was responsible for much of Wellington's abortionist architecture over the years.  Some, like the modern but ultimately hideously institutional Massey House sadly remain.  The building proved many engineering theories and made good on many new ideas.  But despite this the building still is an impractical response.  It's only saving grace has now been dismantled.  Roy Parson's book shop and cafĂ© was an inspirational, trendy, Scandinavian addition to the austerity of the coming concrete jungle that will eventually engulf Wellington's Golden Mile and beyond.  Thank God that plans to clean up the dying hulks of Molesworth Street, which was once a street of new and experimental buildings and is now a dying ghetto compromises, some condemned to earthquake risk.  

On the back cover, a telling and ominous photo of the framework of the BNZ building opposite
Stewart Dawson's corner looms large, dwarfing every other structure.  Yet it was halted for many years due to a Boilermaker's strike that not only ended the union but all steel construction for many years.

I loved this book, for its history, for its memories and for the unwritten future that it forbodes.  If a sequel is possible it will certainly be interesting to see that in another 40 to 50 years.

Julia Gatley is a senior lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland. A graduate of Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Melbourne, she is author of Athfield Architects (2012) and editor ofGroup Architects: Towards a New Zealand Architecture (2010) and Long Live the Modern: New Zealand’s New Architecture, 1904–1984 (2008).
Paul Walker is a professor of architecture at the University of Melbourne. Educated at the University of Auckland, he is co-author with Justine Clark ofLooking for the Local: Architecture and the New Zealand Modern (2000). Recent publications include chapters in The Sage Handbook of Architectural Theory, edited by Greig Crysler, Stephen Cairns and Hilde Heynen (2012); Neo-Avant-garde and Postmodern: Postwar Architecture in Britain and Beyond, edited by Mark Crinson and Claire Zimmerman (2010); and Colonial Modernities, edited by Peter Scriver and Vikramaditya Prakash (2007).
Vertical Living: The Architectural Centre and the Remaking of Wellington also includes contributions from curator and art historian Damian Skinner and from Justine Clark, an independent architectural editor, writer and critic.

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