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Design Review: Volume 4, Issue 3 (June-July 1952)

Here and There

page 52

Here and There

Brighter Shops

Within the past year an increasing number of sleek ‘modern’ shops have appeared in the larger towns, particularly Auckland. Retailers appear to be coming under the influence of new store design in the States, which has been so amply illustrated in American architectural magazines. There has been much good original design using colour, texture, materials and light in an effective way to attract people in from the street and provide a gay and pleasant atmosphere for selling. This is a welcome trend away from the conventional shop with deep showcases, narrow entrance and vitrolite front. The idea now is to open the shop up to the street and make the shop itself the display. But it is not enough to use this idea at random. If not applied with full knowledge and design skill, it can be disastrous for the shopkeeper. I am thinking of a remodelled shoe store in Wellington which, though attractive to look at, exposes the stockinged feet of customers to public view. There is another case of a women's frock shop opened right up to the footpath, and one looks into an expanse of carpet with the goods around the walls. A customer would have to be fairly sure of herself before stepping beyond the threshold. One is not cunningly lured in, or even encouraged. Though ‘smart’ to look at, this is a misapplication of an idea.

* * *

Better Furniture

Though with advancing years, I seem to become more critical and less tolerant of poorly-designed objects, I am sure there has been an improvement lately in some of the furniture in the big stores, particularly easy chairs. The wooden-armed lounge chair is replacing the padded upholstered leviathan with its massive arms, and the ‘three-piece suite’, the be-all and end-all of most suburban living-rooms, is losing favour. I should like to ascribe this to an improvement in people's design sense, but I am sure it is really because rising building costs mean smaller rooms; there just isn't any space in most houses now for the padded ‘three-piecer’. Of course, only a small proportion of these new chairs are handsome; the point is that one can now buy quite a good-looking and comfortable chair without having it specially designed or imported from overseas.

* * *

A Loss to Dunedin

I have heard so many stories about the Scotsman's over-cautionary attitude towards money that I had considered this trait was probably grossly overplayed. But I have been unable to find any other reason for the reported demolition by the Dunedin City Council of the old home of the late Sir John Roberts. I hope to be corrected if I am wrong, but I understand that this house and garden were among the finest of their kind in the country. The house, a huge and solid structure in permanent materials, was bequeathed to the Council by Sir John—no conditions, no trustees—a direct gift. The house was subsequently converted into quarters for married university students, and, though very successful in this respect, failed to reap the required rate of interest. The house and gardens, including the magnificent trees, have been demolished and bulldozed. The land is to be used for playing fields, which, I suppose, will bring in some return from ground fees. Letters of protest to the Council and members of the family were unable to prevent this destruction. It is a serious loss—historically, socially and architecturally—to the country as a whole and to Dunedin in particular, which is now so much poorer and so much nearer to resembling any other New Zealand town.

* * *

War Artists Exhibition

The exhibition in the National Gallery of the paintings of the war artists is the only opportunity we have had of seeing this work together. It enables us to evaluate the total work, both as painting and as historical record. I found the exhibition disappointing on both counts. As paintings they are competent—there are few more capable draughtsmen in New Zealand than Russell Clark. The other two official artists, Barnes-Graham and Peter McIntyre, are also good technicians. As historical records the paintings are of doubtful value. Peter McIntyre, who was our only official artist in the Middle East, has done little more than record incidents. One wonders whether photographs would not have served the purpose as well. In fact, I am suspicious that many of the paintings were in fact taken directly from snaps. I cannot imagine Winston Churchill posing in the desert in his boiler suit for his side portrait.

The pictures have a sameness about them that becomes monotonous. The portraits are among the best, I thought. They are certainly the best of Barnes-Graham's work—strongly yet sensitively handled. What was most lacking was any suggestion of war on the lives of the soldiers or even civilians. No excitement, no fear, no horror, no courage nor weakness. The only exceptions were two large oil colours by J. B. Coe of war in the jungle. These were realistic—you felt that this was the reality of war. Unpleasant? Of course it was unpleasant.

* * *

Schools Of Britain

An architectural exhibition from overseas is a rare event in New Zealand. So it was with feelings of expectation that I visited the opening of the exhibition of recent British schools prepared by the Royal Institute of British Architects. My expectation was enlivened by illustrations of many fine school buildings I had seen in the Architectural Review and by a recent visit to the Old Country. What a disappointment to see only a selection of conventional buildings, most of which could just pass for mediocre design! Where were Aslin's brilliant prefabricated steel schools in Hertfordshire of which fifty have now been completed since the war? Where were Yorke and Rosenberg's new schools in Stevenage and Poplar? If recent British school buildings have anything to teach us, these are the ones we should have been shown.

Mr. Richard Hallyer, the new British Council representative in New Zealand, explained at the official opening that, due to mishaps, the exhibition was late in arriving in New Zealand. In fact, it was so badly damaged in Australia that it had to return to London to be re-prepared. But this hardly explains the poor selection of buildings. Though mounted on beautiful aluminium screens, the illustrations were not always clear. Many were so small that they were no use at all, and others so large that one had to stand further from them than there was space in the hall. An exhibition such as this does not help to boost our own low architectural standards. Could it be that the R.I.B.A. cannot recognise good buildings when it sees them?