The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1954]
The Long Reign of Victoria
The Long Reign of Victoria
As one leaves the National Art Gallery and Museum of New Zealand, one is hit full in the face by a sight of such utter devastation and confusion, that one queries if one is not in one of those dread photos of Victorian slum buildings. A cubist nightmare, a misted grey jumble of concrete, of red and tarred roofs, of crude signs rises like an ominous sea over Te Aro. "Neighboulotts for Newtown. The Eblanamanga you behazheld loomening up out of the dumblynass." So James Joyce, but he was looking the other way.
And yet this is the background to our lives, the morass in which we move, eat and work, like lost figures in a Piranesi prison etching. Of course it is not as bad as all that, we are still human, and it can all be reduced to common-sense—to a dumpy, no-nonsense figure that stands in Cambridge Terrace.
Yes, there Queen Victoria stands, plump but resolute. Victoria, Regina et Imperatrix, 1837-1901. She looks towards the city, without a smile. Below her are goings-on of which she would hardly approve, but which her disdain encourages. She is the first Wellingtonian.
Below, the imposing, heavy steps have fallen away at one corner, to expose a wide gap, behind which there is nothing but a black emptiness. The huge, block, stone steps are a fake. Above them arc three equally revealing reliefs. The first is a direct, realistic portrayal of the Waitangi Treaty signing. It is straightforward and unadorned—an action had to be completed, intent and form were unconsciously one.
But in the next relief, "Commerce" is presented in an allegorical mannequin parade. A number of tall, distant creatures of a female variety, combine posing reminiscent of the late Mr. Burne Jones, with vacuous gaze for the pavement beholder. One clutches a locomotive engine, apparently from a Hornby set; another holds up an electric light bulb like an effete daffodil. Close to her heart she warms a dry coil battery. Surely these are Divine Muses, for they wear Grecian robes. One communicates with Mt. Olympus (Mt. Victoria?) by toy telephone. Joves's all-seeing eye is taken by a commercial camera, discreetly in the background. Such was colonial Commerce, or was it all just Science, while the businessmen only modestly looked on.
But the arts had their place—in fact on the opposite side. Seven of these delectable, distant creatures stand in mutual admiration showing their favourite genius. Some, more bashful, trail hands, while a sister, wielding a female, nude statuette, like a baseball bat or a small leg of mutton, shows the aesthetes holy defiance of the Philistine. One trails a palette that looks like a floppy summer hat. At last we come to the pensive muse, a model for all girl students. In chaste detachment she touches a wondering finger to her chin and meekly waits for the Dionysiac fire of inspiration.page 76
These astounding and charming women are, after Victoria, first citizens of Wellington, and it has been their guardian spirit, their corporate Genius, that has transformed the area known as Greater Wellington into the city of glory that it is today.
The first permanent settlers had settled at Petone, but had found the area unsuitable—"the land being so level as to need drainage!" A remark of interest to later town planners. In the September of 1840 they moved to a site on the southern side of the harbour.
There the first buildings of Lambton Quay went up to a height, in Dicky Barrett's hotel, of two storeys at most. This direct, unpretentious building may be seen standing clearly out in a Heaphy painting held by the Alexander Turnbull Library.
The quay itself was the beachfront track, close against the hills, and joining the two major areas of flat land. It had the natural, organic curve of the sea and shore, and the ideal sweep for an unparalleled street, a street to outrival such fine English elegances as Park or Regent Crescents, or the crescents of Bath. It could have been a nineteenth century realization of those sunset departures of Claud Lorrain. But this was not the place nor time for dreams. One building alone faintly suggests what might have been, and this is the Gresham Hotel, a building about which my illustrator, Miss Jeanne Benseman, and I strongly disagree.
If Lambton Quay, "with its long, majestic curve might have been one of the noblest streets in the world," Oriental Bay, with its parade curving in sweet leisure, could have been its delightful sea-front counterpart. If it had become another Brighton even, there would have been much to rejoice in. Today one block of flats stands out across the harbour, to feed the imagination on vistas of white and blue and to show what might have been—might if it had been a hundred years earlier that the settlers had landed, and not in Victoria's reign.
For in architecture the Victorian Age was to be the worst in Western civilization's history. It was the first age that broke tradition's continual extension. In an age with a psychology of Progress men stopped, to look back in despair, to become antiquarians. Men were rooted in the past, having lost the conviction of their own creation.
Left to themselves the colonists devised a rational and charming late-Georgian architecture. There is little of it left in Wellington, and being mostly of timber it is fast disappearing. A few scraps may be seen in little houses, such as the one tucked away at the bottom of Church steps. Unlike later domestic architecture, they did not attempt to ape a Greek pediment in a gable, but allowed the roof to run down over an open verandah. The shape of the pitched roof was thus not obtrusive and could be pleasantly contrasted with the squareness of the chimney. For larger examples you must go out in the country—the Williams' missionary house at Tauranga, or the Treaty House of Waitangi for example. Two notable examples in Wellington are the Albion and Commercial Hotels, both in Molesworth Street.
There can be seen the natural way in which wood has been adapted to the plain, geometric, squared architecture of the "Georgian-Regency" period. There is a proportion in long horizontal lines, of not only building to street,page break page break page break page break page 77
but, in the squared windows, of details to the building itself. This integrity is harmonious and aesthetically satisfying.
Architects were over self-conscious, their intellects paralysing the creative powers of the body, of the whole man. Thus Sir George Gilbert Scott, the most prolific of major Victorian architects, could write " . . .. if we had a distinctive architecture of our own day worthy of the greatness of the age, I should be content to follow it", but it is "morally impossible to invent a spick-nd-span new style." How sadly passive, resigned, and yet quietly smug. With such a lack of creative confidence, the way was open for the scholar, giving the knowledge of all ages and the conviction of none.
The multiplying towns, commercial wealth, the rise of the "petit bourgeois" gave the architectural tradition into the hands of new patrons; patrons who had neither the background of education or the instinctive taste that the previous patron, the aristocrat, had.
This new class of patrons brought with it to architecture its own values. There was an intense and overriding desire for acceptance, elevation to respectability, the assurance of being "correct". This marked their building as pretentious often, in its urgent desire to impress. A bold (and often false) facade was relied on to carry the day. This is the source of so much show-window building, trompe d'oeil, the shameless but spotless front wall, that hides the private lives of tarred tin roofs. Architectural hypocrisy was made permanent in ferro-concrete, and Victorian architecture is largely the architecture of New Zealand.
There were a succession of "periods," modes, idioms in Victorian architecture and they will serve as convenient divisions to describe the bulk of Wellington's architecture. The first epoch, the Romantic (1832-45), is really the tail-end of the eighteenth century, and may be termed "The Classic Survival". It has a long journey behind it to the nineteenth century. First, the temples of the Greeks, then the capitols of the Romans, then the palaces of the Italian Renaissance; later the work of Palladio at Vicenzia, and then via The Grand Tour, to early eighteenth century England. Here rules for the style were fast established, but rules which were adaptable to the problem of alternating plain walls and openings.
It used certain set forms, once functional but now mainly decorative—the column with its different orders—Doric, Ionic, Corinthian; the triangular pediment, the Romanesque rounded arch, rectangular stone construction to give an effect of strength, impressiveness, solidity to Towns Halls, Municipal Chambers, the Head Office of Banks and Railway Stations. All of these were growing in importance in the early Victorian period, the period of Municipality Acts, of cash and railways. Our Houses of Parliament, Art Galleries and Museum and Town Hall are remnants of the Classic Survival. Indeed the Town Hall is an example of the Victorian schizophrenia between exterior appearances and contents. The diffuse Classicism of the facade clashes with (1) the cold deadness of the entry, (2) the solid but pleasant sweep of the stairs, (3) the barnlike engineering of the main hall, undisguised by a few Palladian trimmings. Kinder words may be said of the expansive Parliamentary front, although here again there is the contrast of "front" and "the backs".page 78
It is perhaps the most widely misused style in Wellington. Note how the Bank of New South Wales in Lambt on Quay uses a Palladian scheme of pillared porches and squared windows to disguise the architects' lack of invention. Again, the Victorians used Classic at railway stations as railway expresses were a stirring symbol of man's progress, and to travel was a venture into the Future. So travellers by rail from Wellington pass through eight giant doric concrete columns, under a vaulted and caissoned renaissance mock-stone chamber before daring to approach a train.
In every street or alley the classic tradition drifts on, milked arid in such edifices as the D.I.C. or T. & G. buildings. Sometimes it has been used as a suggestion without being overwhelming and it benefits a building in a quiet way. Straightforward is the plain Palladianism of the Opera House, and Courtenay Chambers, apart from the festering neon sign plastered on its skin, is, because of its classic adaption, the only building worth notice in Courtenay Place.
The Classic Survival can be, as John Betjeman remarks, like a "grand after-dinner speech, full of (elderly) wisdom and elegant oratory." It can also be conservatism in extremis.
But as always, the young men are not listening. "Let us be ourselves, let us be different; move on to the next generation, the next style." The Romantics find the solution to the world's problems in the Gothik North, amid the dark forests, the spires, the fretted and traceried forests of Stone. Thus began the revival of "pointed architecture, The Gothic Revival, with its consequent battle of rivals, Goths v, Hellenes, with Giant Philistine taking all. It was at first an Ecclesiastical movement smacking strongly of "Romanism," and leading to "St. Mary of the Angels"; but it was made respectable by Ruskin, so respectable as to allow St. John's Presbyterian Church and St. Peter's, Anglican the joint assuredness of a divinely approved style. Like monastic lands, it was too much of a good thing to remain exclusively in church hands, so it was appropriated by the "professional" men. It could hint the glory of a distant golden age for "the educated", it could impress the impressionable by its skilful barbarism. This is the explanation, as I see it, of The Dominion Farmers' Institue built as late as 1917, a building which contains in the shape of a stuffed moa, its own commentary. Past prestige and bookish monks explain possibly the General Assembly Library. The ideal of an altruistic selfless pursuit of Truth as a scholar's duty was enshrined not only in its motto but also in the University's building. Of "late English perpendicular" style, the edifice represented optimism and a young community's zeal for all things possessed overseas. The facade is more convincing than the weak and con-victionless interior. In the seventies, Gothic was popularized as a domestic style, although fussy small window-panes did their best to disguise it under the title of "Queen Anne". Its most noted English example, mercifully destroyed by the Germans, was aptly enough the first New Zealand Chambers. Its Wellington equivalent is the Alexander Turnbull Library.
It had become all a matter of choosing your style, or sides, for architecture now was merely "that art which impresses on the form (of a building) certain characters venerable or beautiful, but otherwise unnecessary (Ruskin). Thus it could be suggested, humorously fortunately, that domestic architecture page 79 be in : Norman-Feudal, Lancastrian Embattled, Morisco-Spanish, or Pompeian-Suburban. Also humorous is the way in which Wellington has near representatives in St. Mary of the Angels, Victoria University and Swinson Chambers (next to the Kings Theatre). It lacks only the last, although it well deserves it.
The variety obtainable in a small space is well illustrated in Willis Street, where after the stooping wood lowness of Furniture Fashions, there shoots up the apoplexed Dutch design of Wardells, followed by the Georgian of the Caledonia Hotel, and then a few paces, the Flemish of the Siberian Fur Trading Co. Then follows a style of no name and mixed parentage, and the skyline staggers on its way, relieved for a moment by some plain buildings before it has to face the debased Palladianism of the Midland Hotel, with its broken pillars and flashy-tile street-level. And so the Victorian architect plundered the centuries in reaction to not only Classic and Gothic, but to life itself.. And although Dutch and Flemish might be regarded as "commercial" styles, commercial life itself was uninspiring, meticulous and grim, with few hints of adventure in its routine. It needed its facades as a compensation. Competition and private enterprise were expressed in the conflicting styles, wall to wall, the largest unit of thought being the personal unit, not the communal street.
In the eighteen-fifties English buildings turned Baroque, and the High Victorian Style was reached. It was implicit in the Classical emphasis and although the essence of true Baroque architecture is movement in space for dramatic effect, Victorian Baroque never really got off the ground. The best examples in Wellington are the Public Trust building and the St. James Theatre. It is a bombastic, deafening style with thick, sagging mouldings swarming over its front. Columns, roundels, pilasters bulge for attention. One of the worst specimens is the Bank of New Zealand, Manners Street. But of course the supreme piece is the State Trust, built in 1908, that "Annus Terribilis" of New Zealand architecture, the year that also saw the Bath House at Rotorua built. It is bold, but corpulent, as imposing as a fat uncle. The most genuinely Baroque spectacle in Wellington is of course the massive, swirling clouds that overawe our skies. The Tower of the Tivoli Theatre might be considered by the fanciful as a timid Victorian variation on Dresden baroque, but only the fanciful.
And through it all the solid values of Georgian architecture lingered on, built by the economically-minded or the occasional colonial aesthete. It is, needless to say, the supreme town architecture and Bowen House demonstrates what quietness and harmony can be achieved even in unsuitable material. Its most widespread adaption seems to be to small pubs, where it is used with varying success. "The Carlton" in Willis Street, the "White Lodge" (spoilt only by its roof line) in Courtenay Place, the "Selwyn" and the "Cambridge" in Cambridge Terrace, and numerous others are reserved, dignified and well proportioned. Older wooden ones, such as the "Albion", have been face-lifted by stuccoing, have lost their individuality and now look like discoloured cardboard boxes with windows pressed out.
As hotels grow larger their architecture becomes more inflated-as in "The Grand"; characterless as in the "Royal Oak", or just plain dead as in page 80 "The Midland". Those that attempt to be "modern" end by being "modernistic"; a realization of only the mannerisms and superficialities of a style. They have only "contemporary trimmings". Thus "The Midland" contains both Regency and early Frank Lloyd Wright remnants, grossly enlarged, while both the Hotel St. George and the Waterloo are permanent reminders of New Zealand's timid "jazz-age" in styling, the late thirties.
Now that hotels have been mentioned logical progress can be made to the architecture of entertainment; architecture which is salesmanship. There is a division between the older theatres—the St. James, the Opera House, the Tivoli, the Regent and the more recent ones—the State, the Plaza and the Kings. The older theatres are more expansive, middle-class affairs, with their associations originally of "flesh and blood," boxes, galleries and stage entrances. The latter ones are "cinemas" and aim at mass audiences. The inherent vulgarity of neon-tubing makes their faces like a writhing cream cake. The interior of the St. James is too remarkably music-hall to have been overlooked, but the Edwardian Art-Nouveau of the Opera House boxes may be missed. Art-Nouveau leaves (squashed hearts) are plentiful here and at the St. James.
And lastly, the churches. The traveller entering Wellington through the grimy desolation of Thorndon railway yards sees, as he moves to his tram or trolley bus one quiet spire rising above the semi-abstract of walls. This is St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, copied from a Wren Restoration Church. This is a perfectly conceived and balanced church with all lines combining to carry the eye up to the summit of the smooth, octagonal spire. The whole building is harmonious, civilized, graceful. It is friendly and reasonable, combining directness with style, and shows what New Zealand lost in church architecture by not being founded at the same time as North America. Nearby, in pleasant contrast, but one which would have appealed to Wren who believed in spires rising "in good proportion above neighbouring houses" is the Colonial Georgian house, Sunday school for the pompous and heavy building of "The First Church of Christ, Scientist".
Just down the Terrace, the Congregational Church demonstrates the difficulty of applying Gothic principles to a small-scale church. Most noticeable are the sharp corrugations, the stiff curvatures and the ungainly porch.
Across the valley there is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart that rears an enormous Roman, square-columned and pedimented front. It is impressive in a dilapidated way, and the steep entrance steps aid the effect.
The Wesley Methodist Church, Taranaki Street, demonstrates how, as the century went on, ecclesiastical Gothic had become "traditional" and lost its "Romish" suspicion. It could now be combined with the usual Nonconformist, rounded Italianiate. "Enthusiasm" itself had become established and respectable.
The Anglican Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Mulgrave Street, although of early date, is not impressive, as Gothic is not suited to small wooden churches. Even so. it is infinitely preferable to the planned nondescript edifice which is to take its place. Byzantine is the despair of those who wish to be different at all costs. The showpiece of Anglicanism is, of course, the clean-cut beauty of St. James', Lower Hutt. It is a brilliant and beautiful conception, inspiring in its simplicity and integrity. Its lightness and contrast of forms (tower and nave) is an inherent tribute to its intellectual ordering.page 81
Apart from this last church, it is not to the churches I look for architectural inspiration, but to a symbol of the Modern Welfare State. This is the Dixon Street flats, the only building in Wellington which gives me full aesthetic satisfaction. The long vertical lines are emphasised and strengthened by balconies at the back, and echoed by uniform windows at the front. The skyline is neat and the whole bound together by the lift-shaft. Decoration is almost entirely functional, and nothing gestures for attention. The whole makes a twentieth-century equivalent of the crisp and white cathedrals of the High Middle Age.
Yes, Wellington's architecture is a fascinating study. It is possible to speak of its many surprises—Egyptian lotus leaves in Kent Terrace, a public convenience built in the style of Sir Edward Lutyens' Imperial Government building's at New Delhi, the shock of the Ferry wharf-shed with the silhouette of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence; the perfect abstract for the Un-known Political Prisoner in the tram wires above the unsuspecting policeman on duty at James Smith's Corner. And other things too, such as a Trades Hall with an inner courtyard like a Venetian nobleman's palace.
In the year two thousand, no doubt, a tall, lean Londoner will stand pensive on a pile of masonry in Lambton Quay, to ponder long on the rich justness of that motto under which these strange people lived: "Suprema a Situ".