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Design Review: Volume 5, Issue 5 (April 1954)

inhibitions at an exhibition — “Architecture in New Zealand, 1954.”

page 117

inhibitions at an exhibition
Architecture in New Zealand, 1954.”

An exhibition at the National Art Gallery arranged by the Wellington Branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.

There was about six hundred feet of wall space occupied by this exhibition of architects' recent work. Few of the drawings and photographs were specially prepared for the purpose, representing rather the routine office production and offering therefore a wide variation in size and finish among the work shown. Strict arrangement on the walls was not possible, hanging was deliberately not selective and those who voluntarily arranged the work could do little more than ensure adequate presentation without recourse to special display techniques. Thus the whole show had a bald directness appropriate enough to the ‘end of term’ atmosphere of the Annual Conference of Architects with which it coincided.

So it was possible to go around these walls and gain from them a peculiarly true picture of work in hand, discern trends and generally get an impression of architectural standards in this country at the present time. And from this standpoint the exhibition revealed exactly the same characteristics as were apparent in the hanging and display. We are prosaic lot, and our work shows it.

For the bulk of the six hundred feet one was conscious of a lack of bravura, of boldness, of the ridiculous even. Common sense underlay every line drawn or photographed and one longed for somewhere a bit of sublime idiocy. Granted that some highly significant work overseas relies on brutal clarity of building for its rare aesthetic quality, there is in this country no tradition of formal discipline to illuminate such a simplicity of approach. Our directness is of a more guileless kind—our buildings grow out of their requirements as innocently as a tadpole and with much less predictable result.

Certainly to earn a living as an architect in New Zealand is a desperate business and the survivors are the practical, the hard-working, the hard-headed. No time for nonsense in this game—long hours, scrupulous care technically and strict adherence to commonsense standards are needed to gain that modest standard of living called success in our profession. At least that is the impression one gained in looking at these walls lined with those workmanlike drawings. Consequently it was difficult to whip up a great deal of enthusiasm for the state of architecture here. Nor, on the other hand was it possible to be very depressed about it. It was like talking to some thoroughly normal, healthy person whose face is as honest as his soul, and whose conversation is as free of artifice as it is lacking in vulgarity. One could not be excited, annoyed, stimulated, depressed, inspired or even bored by it.

The conclusion is that the greatest danger which besets our architecture is the very one which threatens our welfare society as a whole: that the normal, the competent, the platitudinous is taking command and is becoming the ideal. Stickler for social convention though he was, the Victorian would never have fallen for that one, and this country is too young—too Victorian, if you like— to dispense with the originator, the adventurous. If we allow this to continue then the best we can hope for is this gutless architecture of the common sense man.

Beyond these reflections one cause for anticipation of the future remains: we are a small country and capital is rarely available for adventurous building of any size unless it is the community at large who is spending it. The salaried architect has already assumed a far greater significance in this country than was the case a few years ago. For the future he would seem to be the main hope, outside of the residential field, for work conceived as it should be, against a background of national culture, contemplated without the burden of survival and carried out under technically sympathetic conditions. Many of those works which, in this exhibition, gave positive excitement: the proposal for twenty-one storey flats in Auckland, the Hydro-electric schemes, the Auckland Departmental building and the small country bank, were the work of salaried architects. It seemed that only in the field of small private houses, imaginatively conceived and boldly carried out by small firms of young architects, was much spirit otherwise discernable in the work. Perhaps their results are too few, too scattered, and—taking the long view—too impermanent, to be called ‘significant’ architecture. What does signify is the presence in New Zealand of young architects, as yet intent upon merely keeping alive, who can still build adventurously.