VERTICAL LIVING: THE ARCHITECTURAL CENTRE AND THE REMAKING OF WELLINGTON
by Julia Gatley and Paul Walker
Auckland University Press, $60.00, July 2014, 9781869408152
The Architectural Centre Inc, a Wellington-based association organised in 1946 by a diverse group of individuals who believed 'in the transformative potential of modern architecture' is an exemplary instance of the collaborative way people around the world sought to understand the modern movement in architecture and design. As Julia Gatley and Paul Walker note in the introduction to their book, the Architectural Centre wasn't the only such body formed at that time in New Zealand but it is the only one to survive. However, while citing the contemporaneous formation of the Auckland-based Architectural Group (1946-1957), they ignore the Auckland-based Design Guild (1948), the Dunedin-based Visual Arts Association (1951-1968) and the Christchurch-based Design Association of New Zealand (1960-1966?), presumably on the basis that their foci were not solely architectural. It's an odd distinction to make particularly since the Architectural Centre was one of the principal proponents in New Zealand of not only architecture but also the many other fields of modern design. Unlike the other local design promotion organisations that emerged during the 1940s and 50s, the Architectural Centre proselytised its aims to the public through a journal, the New Zealand Design Review. Indeed the editorial of the first issue of the Design Review asserted that their members' 'greatest claim to affiliation was an overriding enthusiasm for good design in all things.' <New Zealand Design Review, 1:1 (April 1948), p. 1>. Despite being either ignored or dismissed as a student initiative in many of the standard New Zealand architectural histories, the Centre had a more significant role in activating modern design in New Zealand than its name might suggest.
Separately Gatley and Walker have produced earlier histories that have reshaped our understanding of twentieth century architecture and design in New Zealand. In Looking for the local: architecture and the New Zealand modern (2000), Walker, with Justine Clark, was responsible for the first substantial analysis of mid-twentieth century New Zealand architecture and design to be framed within an international context. Looking for the local explored one of the Architectural Centre's failed initiatives, a book on local architecture intended to make New Zealand architecture available to a local and international audience, along the lines of those produced by the American architect G E Kidder Smith in association with the Museum of Modern Art. Likewise, Gatley's Long live the modern: New Zealand's new architecture, 1904-1984 (2008) was equally internationalist in its perspective on how modernism was manifest in New Zealand. Vertical living, by contrast, with its focus on the architecture and planning of Wellington, is distinctly parochial in its coverage.
It's difficult to convey the cultural radicalism implied in the formation of the Centre and the other design promotion bodies and it's something that Gatley and Walker and their co-authors largely avoid addressing. New Zealand in 1946 was a deeply conventional, provincial society; consumer taste was, on the whole, conservative and mediated by British interests. The country's socially orthodox Labour administration's continued commitment to a command economy was not only increasingly resented by the electorate but also exploited by the opposition National party who claimed to represent a future untrammelled by the bogey of 'socialism' while espousing equally conservative social values. While it's a truism, the mantra 'rugby, racing and beer', leavened by a little Hollywood and a bit of bone china for the ladies, perfectly exemplified the gendered anti-intellectualism of mainstream New Zealand culture of the post-war period. Organisations promoting modernism such as the Centre, tiny as they were, represented a challenge to the prevailing cultural hegemony.
What differentiated the Architectural Centre from the design promotion bodies that failed to survive? Gatley and Walker, comparing the Centre to the Architectural Group, suggest the answer lies in focus; that while the former was concerned with 'the bigger but vaguer issue of the urban realm', the latter 'focused on the design and construction of the small, refined, architecturally designed house, the holy grail of New Zealand architecture'. In drawing this delineation Gatley and Walker clearly articulate the tensions between metropolitan and provincial views of design and architecture and the Centre's long championing of urbanity in the face of suburban hegemony. This is too narrow a reading of the Centre's rationale and it underplays the sense of collaborative governance that allowed it to flourish, while the other bodies devoted to the promotion of modernism – organised along more conventional lines – withered. Another significant point of demarcation was the Centre's periodic championing of progressive political views – notwithstanding its 1958 president standing as a Ratepayers' and Citizens' Association candidate in the 1959 local body elections – and its embrace of theory, notably through its summer schools held between 1946 and 1953. By a bizarre quirk of local politics, modernism as manifest in New Zealand was often associated with a reactionary right and the other New Zealand design organisations actively rejected any theoretical debate, presumably on ideological grounds.
Deutscher Werkbund, 'an alliance of laymen, dilettantes, scholars of art, art critics, and a very particular kind of younger architect'<Quoted in F Schwartz, The Werkbund: design theory and mass culture before the First World War (New Haven/London: Yale, 1996), p. 13>. Established in 1907, the Werkbund looked to the bigger picture and saw architecture and design as a reified object as they sought, as Schwarz observes, 'to discover the way form acts in, and reacts to, a market economy; and to redeploy form under these conditions as a utopian force, as a carrier of Culture'<Schwarz, p 17>. Gatley and Walker claim the Centre's origin is located amongst the body of modernist architectural organisations such as CIAM (1928) and its British wing, the MARS group (1933) but this assertion ignores the fact that the Centre was not exclusively architectural in either its membership or activities and minimises the experience of a number of key figures involved in its establishment. While identifying a group of European refugees as a vector for the 'radical ideas' of the inter-war period, they fail to acknowledge that this 'educated and cultured' group, a number of whom – most notably Ernst Plischke – had been involved with the Werkbund and brought with them a sense of intellectual engagement that was entirely alien to provincial New Zealand. The experience of the Werkbund with its wide-ranging debates and its embrace of a disparate range of intellectual disciplines and social classes was not something New Zealanders were familiar with, notwithstanding their ostensible egalitarian aspirations.
|Design and Industries Association original notification of interest form (1915). Like the Architectural Centre in 1946, |
its establishment was driven by architects and its membership was equally diverse
Despite this architectural bias, the authors allow that the Centre had a wider stakeholding. Like the Werkbund, and unlike the other New Zealand design promotion bodies, publishing was at the core of the Centre's activities. A chapter by Walker and Justine Clark – his co-author on Looking for the local – critically assesses the Centre's publishing of the Design Review from 1948 until 1954 comparing its high design and production values – notably those produced under the aegis of the 'illustrator' Melvyn Taylor – to those prevailing in the country's 'professional' architectural journals of the time: the Journal of the NZIA and Home and Building (which had a formal connection to the NZIA). The question as to why the NZIA associated journals were so dire graphically when compared with the Design Review is not addressed. Damian Skinner contributes a chapter on the Architectural Centre Gallery, which operated in leased spaces between 1953 and 1968 and, in effect, carried on the work of the pioneering Helen Hitchings dealer gallery, which operated between 1949 and 1951 (currently the subject of a disappointing exhibition at Te Papa). Like the Centre itself, the volunteer gallery's programme was distinctive in its internationalism. Skinner opines that it was 'remarkable that it organised and displayed so many international exhibitions' but then diminishes the observation by suggesting this was because 'it was '"in effect a civic gallery", presenting modernism to the Wellington public', rather than a vibrant arm of international modernism.
In its essence Vertical living comprises a series of stand-alone essays anchored around the Centre and organised chronologically. Through this unchallenging structure a number of key themes emerge about the organisation, its members, its challenges and the changing institutional nature of Wellington. It's a very personal narrative that emerges: the activities of the newly established centre are documented by informal snapshots of parties and architectural students en charette, interspersed by more formal photographs delineating the morphing urban profile of the city. Later chapters are not so personal; it's almost as if as Wellington 'modernised', the Centre became less personal and its agenda more institutional. The tone of writing about the Centre seems to shift from a compelling account of its early days to a description of contemporary Wellington that seems to spring from a Positively Wellington Tourism press release: 'the coolest little capital in the world' sort of thing. Its a transformation that's similar to that which occurred in the city's architecture: from the austere beauty of Plischke's Kahn House in Ngaio (1941) to the sprawling, horizontal, vulgarities of Jasmax's Te Papa Tongarewa building 'circuited by a car race track' (1992).
|Cover of W B Sutch, New Zealand planning (1965)|
Although unacknowledged by Gatley and Walker, as well as effectively controlling the gallery, Sutch was involved in all aspects of the Centre's activities. He and his wife, the lawyer Shirley Smith, commissioned Plischke to design their house in Brooklyn (1953-56) and he was notably interested in planning issues. In a speech delivered in April 1965 to the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Geographical Society, Sutch summarised succinctly and in some detail the state of planning internationally and in New Zealand, noting that 'the extent and complexity of planning undertaken in New Zealand are much greater than most people realise.' <W Sutch, New Zealand planning (Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington Geography Department, 1965), p. 47>. His assessment not only articulated the Centre's stance in respect of Wellington's urban planning but also located it in a wider context: planning was not just about the making of urban space; it was also, fundamentally, about the economic life of a country.
|[Geoff Nees (1923-1999)?], cover of W B Sutch, Wellington: a sick city ()|
In terms of the Centre's original remit to promote 'good design in all things', its most impressive but generally disregarded non-architectural achievement came in 1966 when a conservative National party government introduced a Bill into Parliament establishing the New Zealand Industrial Design Council (NZIDC), a state-funded, independent agency charged with promoting 'the appreciation, development, improvement, and use of industrial design in New Zealand with the object of improving the quality, efficiency, packaging, presentation and appearance of goods produced in New Zealand'<Industrial Design Act, 1966>. The Council was Sutch's invention and its first director, Geoffrey Nees, a student foundation member of the Centre, was recruited by Sutch in 1960 to fill the specially created position of Industrial Design Officer at the Department of Industries and Commerce. The Centre was pivotal to the creation of the NZIDC; not only had Sutch drawn inspiration from the Centres publications and debates but he also recruited its members to boost his arguments for its existence. Where other design-related organisations, notably the Design Institute of New Zealand and the New Zealand Society of Industrial Designers (established in 1960) fought against the formation of the NZIDC on the specious grounds of state interference in the private sector, the Centre worked to support the initiative. For the 1963 Export Development Conference, in part organised by Sutch to obtain institutional endorsement of his design initiative, two key background papers were submitted by members of the Centre: an official one; and one submitted by Allan Wild, a former president of the Centre (1956-58), under the false flag of the Public Relations Committee of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects. It's Wild's 1968 project, Jellicoe Towers – illustrated on the book's dust jacket – that is one of the buildings giving the book its title.
By concentrating on the modernist remaking of the urban fabric of Wellington, Vertical living avoids dealing with what was probably the central problematic of modernism in New Zealand: the nature and function of the metropolitan phenomenon of modernist design as it was manifest in a provincial society. Equally, by asserting the Centre as a predominantly practitioner agency, Gatley and Walker in a way narrow the significance not only of the non-architects who were involved in its activities but also the importance of architecture as a signifier in the wider urban context. It's strange too that the political dimension of the Centre's activities, while hinted at, is largely ignored. The internal tension between the left and right, between those Centre members – such as Sutch – who espoused progressive views seem to have begun in the 1960s. The marginalisation of the left seems to have prompted an increasingly conventional, less diverse, membership. George Porter, the Centre president elected in 1959 to the Wellington City Council on a right-leaning ticket was noted in 1960 as becoming 'concerned that the Centre's activities were antagonising council and hindering progress. He encouraged restraint from members'. This reactionary stance, articulated by a key member of the Centre at the start of another decade of conservative hegemony, remains unexplored in the narrative. It may be the key to understanding why, despite its seven decades of advocacy and activism, the Centre has ultimately had a limited impact on the urban form of Wellington.