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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 24, No. 12. 1961.

Ingratitude, Thy Name is Aesthete

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Ingratitude, Thy Name is Aesthete

Students' Union Building Reappraised

For nearly two months now, students have been settling into their new building. If we had any aesthetic sense at all, we should have blown the place up and started again. The building is a sham, a fake, a veneer, lacking in good design and good taste. Yet we, who, of all people, are expected to be outspoken, even at the expense of tact, are content to accept this bad architecture without protesting.

Our values are all wrong. We think of what is practical or functional in terms of cost, not design or usage. Our sense of the beautiful is thrown out the back door, and we construct a new aesthetic on mercenary lines.

Concrete Embodiment

We have in the Student Union Building a concrete embodiment of a number of desirable abstract ideas: Little Theatre, cafe, common rooms, and so on. Yet the realisation of these ideas is a far cry from the expectation. So we tend to speak of the S.U.B. in the terms of the abstract ideas rather than the concrete facts. People do this every time a new building is opened.

No matter whether the plunket rooms, or church, or hostel, or assembly hall, are designed well for their respective functions, no matter whether (he building is appropriate to its surroundings, or beautiful in itself: the building is there, it will be used for that purpose, and it has cost so many pounds. That is all the general public wants to know, and there the matter ends! The same thing happened with the S.U.B. It is opened, and speakers vie with one another to boast about the glorious view, the excellent cafe, accommodation, and the most modernly equipped Little Theatre in the Southern Hemisphere. And nobody can hear because the room has such poor acoustics!

What is a Commoncommon Room ?

We worship the term "spacious common-common room" and apply it to a certain large room in the S.U.B. But that room is not made a common-common room merely by the Little Formica labels over the swing doors. What you and I mean by the term is a comfortable, warm, relaxing room. The term brings to mind pictures, books and magazines, carpets, fireplaces, cloth upholstery and curtains. That room which hears this comfortable label is a cold room of painted concrete, plywood, plastic and shiny linoleum; Venetian blinds, old newspaper, rubbish tins. In the abstract, this room has an admirable viewover the harbour. In fact, the view exists only for those who are standing, and those people are only standing as a prelude to sitting down or leaving. So the view claimed for it does not really exist.

Economic Efficiency

Economic efficiency saw to it that we got much that is uninspiring and comfortless in the building. Economy broke up the panorama windows into small panes. Economy put the plastic badge on the outside and the plastic furniture inside. Economy cut down on the lighting in the entrances and exits, making them dark and gloomy. Efficency wipes the building clean with a damp cloth; efficiency laid down mile on mile of dowdy linoleum, and gave us Formica-topped conference tables, efficiency put up Venetian blinds, and saw to it that wherever carpet was laid down, it would humble the visitor rather than welcome him.

Let us accept for the moment the use of cheap materials, linoleum, the little window-panes, Formica, and the poor lighting as in accordance with economic necessity. Why then be ashamed of these materials? Why is the linoleum in the common-rooms and cafe, in an imitation-wood pattern when it could be bold stripes or checks? Why does the Formica conference table-top have to be an oak veneer? If the windowpanes must be small, then arrange them in a restful order, don't make a lattice-work which obtrudes between the viewer and the view. If economy dictates that lights must be few and far between, then the investment should be in fluorescent tubes, not in light shades.


Even with the building as it is now, a sensible colour scheme would have made it immeasurably more satisfying. But colour is used everywhere to disguise the structure, not to express it. There is a veneer upon every visible surface in the building, and anybody who has an eye for the underlying structure will not be deceived by the surface glitter. Long, cold, unnecessary corridors will not be shortened or warmed by waxed plywood half-cladding. The great cylindrical pillars should be accentuated as the chief load-bearers in the building and should impress one with their strength and solidity; but instead have been camouflaged with sprayed cement and paint. Wood panelling has been used in the cafe., and wallpaper and paint elsewhere, to persuade the inhabitant that the walls are not brick or concrete but something else. This amounts to a refusal to acknowledge one's basic materials, and among architects today this is a serious charge.

Basics of Design

We could remedy it, though. We could tear up the lino and put down cork tiles or parquet tiles, rip off the wood veneer and sprayed surface and whitewash the walls, reorganise the lighting system and furnish the place decently. But there would still remain evidence of poor design which can only be corrected by complete re-building.

Good design would have integrated the new building with the Hunter building. It would have eliminated the institution-like corridors, and created a natural and easy flow of movement through the building, instead of hindering it with multiple swing doors. It would have made the windows the right size and the walls suitable for hanging pictures. Good design would have given the building a worthy focal point in the place of the present dark stair-dominated foyer, would have given each room a " focal point, and unity to the whole. At the moment through the cafe, is the only direct enclosed route from the west entrance to the Association office. Neither space nor materials are treated with respect, and for this there is no excuse. Good architects may he hard to come by, but if one chooses the lowest bidder then one must expect the worst.

After 25 years we have a permanent building, but it is one of which we can never be justly proud. It could have been the exception among the Hunter—Kirk hotch-potch, but as long as we students allow ourselves to be represented by men with no other system of values than the commercial major mistakes of the kind that approved this building, will continue to be made.