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Design Review: Volume 3, Issue 6 (May-June 1951)

Here and There

page 134

Here and There

The most important task for building research in New Zealand is in methods of timber construction. Four by twos at eighteen inch centres is a convention more difficult to break than the surveyors' sixty-six foot street. Standard timber framing has evolved by trial and error over hundreds of years, and is written into all local by-laws as required practice. To get a house construction in any other way past the by-law barrier is as difficult as selling ice-cream to Eskimos. As the Architectural Group in Auckland have demonstrated in several houses, conventional framing is wasteful and complicated. Thorough research in Sweden has recently produced a new type of timber construction as strong as the old, which saves forty percent of framing timber.

* * *

In these days of skyrocketting prices it was a pleasant surprise to find some extremely attractive yellow curtain material of contemporary design selling for less than half price. There was nothing obviously the matter with the material so I asked the salesman where the snag was. The snag, I found, was not with the material but with the taste of the average New Zealander. Apparently New Zealanders like blue curtains in the bedroom and green ones in the living room and both preferably with floral patterns. As this material was of neither colour and furthermore was without the slightest suspicion of a flower it was selling for less than half price. It is not very often that one benefits so much from the mistakes of others.

* * *

When we first came to our house we had an unspoiled view of Wellington harbour. Hedges and trees blocked the sight of our neighbours' backyards and the view continued uninterrupted over the city belt down to the harbour itself. But when we prided ourselves on this view we reckoned without our neighbour's passion for the New Zealand gardener's favourite pastime of cutting things down. No one, not even the neighbours, has really benefited by this destruction and the only result is that now backyards, corrugated iron, coal bins and the local rubbish dump all compete with the harbour view.

I doubt if there is another country in the world where trees are so little appreciated as in New Zealand. The bulldozer and the levelled section, irrespective of where the house is to go, seem to be the inevitable first stage of building in this country. You buy your section and then proceed to clear it — ‘Pioneers! O Pioneers!’.

In Sweden however, where house design is in most cases standardized, interest and variety are added to the street by preserving as far as possible all the existing trees — even to the extent of choosing the house site to fit in with the trees. In New Zealand one can only gaze with horror at the treeless and depressing monotony of the Government housing scheme in the Hutt Valley, Tamaki and elsewhere.

And yet the landscape can be mined almost as effectively by planting the wrong sort of tree as by cutting down the existing ones. The Parks and Reserves Department of the Wellington City Council, for example, can only be persuaded to lift its eyes from flower beds and koromikos if it is going to plant cherry trees or pohutukawas, Neither of these trees can survive the Wellington winds and look particularly pathetic clinging half grown to the hills. On the other hand the pines and blue gums, magnificent trees when they are massed together on the hills, are rapidly disappearing.

* * *

In a recent talk to the Architectural Centre, Professor Gordon, Vice Chancellor of the University of New Zealand and Professor of English at Victoria College, deplored the New Zealander's habit of attempting to do the expert's job. He was referring particularly to building and attributed most of our poor standards in appearance and workmanship to the fact that most of us carry out our own house repairs, do our own painting and when building a house do not even consult an architect. I agree. It is a deplorable fact. If any institution is to set an example in good design and in reliance on the expert it should be the University of New Zealand. A pertinent question to have asked Professor Gordon would have been why the College Council appointed an unqualified architect to design the new Student Union building at Victoria University.

* * *

Dr Falla, Director of the Dominion Museum, also spoke to the Centre. A questioner asked whether Dr Falla approved of keeping to the pseudo-Gothic style of the existing building for the new addition to the Canterbury Museum. Dr Falla agreed that functional requirements of lighting, ventilation and layout should not be sacrificed, but thought that this could be achieved if the front repeated the old style, so long as the sides and back were of functional design. I disagree with Dr Falla, for it is only a matter of skill in design to harmonize modern additions with an old building without sacrificing architectural priciples. To repeat or adapt the old design is the easy way out. Those who have seen Asplund's modern addition to the Renaissance Town Hall in Gothenburg will realize that additions to old buildings can be both contemporary in design as well as harmonious.

* * *

I have always thought one of the most pleasant parts of Auckland was the waterfront drive to St Heliers. Mission Bay held special charms for me. After driving below the golden cliffs with their clinging pohutukawas, the broad sweep of Mission Bay with its clear, wide stretch of grass between the road and the beach was always a sight to look forward to. My last visit to Anckland took me to Mission Bay again, but I found it a changed place. The broad sweep of grass was gone. Right in the centre was placed a huge pretentious fountain as a memorial to a citizen. I suppose some good page 135 hearted local has presented it and that the Council could find no other place for it. Was it necessary to impose this useless piece of pomposity on one of Auekland's most pleasant beatches. I have not seen the fountain playing at night but I am sure it out-dazzles Napier and Christchurch. Poor Wellington still cannot find a place for its fountain which has been in storage since the Centennial Exhibition. What about the middle of the Basin Reserve or the top of Mount Victoria?

* * *

Photographs a, b, c, and d, illustrating ‘A Family House and Garden’ in the March-April number, were by Graham Dawson.

* * *

The process of change in the appearance of city streets is in normal times a fairly gradual one, but with the prevailing restrictions on re-building activity a major change of face is a rarity indeed. One is particularly interested therefore when the scaffolding comes down from a city building to reveal á new facade. Naturally one measures mentally the new against the old. Is the change for better or for worse?

Frequently nowadays it is rapidly brought home to one that the original building has been merely subjected to a ‘face-lift’ and more often than not the change can hardly be recognised as one for the better.

This new popular practice generally takes the form of haoking away every projection from the face of the building and then sterilising the wounds with a layer of coloured plaster. Many of Edwardian Wellington's more lush Baroque facades were wisely reduced in depth against risk of earthquake, but some of the more restrained are still to be found intact. How pleasant it is to see the crisp sun of 40 degrees South catching their pediments, capitals, and consols till they sparkle and dance in a way to lend life and character to the dullest street! And how sad to see one vulgarised into a flat, banal slab of plaster in the name of progress.

The elderly wooden building which once lent a certain charm and distinction to the corner of Featherston and Panama Streets has become the Iatest victim of the vandals. Presumably the wooden cornices were rotting, or were being maltreated in some way by the pigeons. At all events the owners apparently gave no thought to replacing the decayed timbers and, with a magnificent distegard for any visual implications, stripped it down to a flat facade and applied the usual plaster treatment. The resulting monstrosity will no doubt have to be endured for at least as long as it takes for the plaster to crack and peel off and the weather to penetrate to the interior. But at least the pigeons need not now be feared. It would be a stouthearted bird indeed which could gain a foothold on this flat bosom.

But please don't misunderstand me. This is not a plea for another Classical Revival. The existing buildings must go, of course, in time, and we certainly couldn't replace them in the same way today even if we set out to do so. But is there not a case for treating with special care those facades which possess any claim to architectural merit at all, so that their distinctive contributions to our townscape may remain with us as long as possible? Can they not be allowed to grow old gracefully?