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Carter Holt Harvey Architectural Awards

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 14 October 1997
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Mr Whineray, Mr Switzer, executives of Carter Holt Harvey, Judges, Award entrants, other members of the architectural profession, ladies and gentlemen.

First, let me thank you for inviting me to present these awards this evening. These are the days of the universal expert: everyone has an opinion about everything and thinks it deserves public airing. So I will conform, but I promise to be a generalist, which is always safer.

Architecture is a profession that is far too frequently overlooked in New Zealand Or if it is not overlooked, it is heartily criticised. So if my presence here serves, even a little, to emphasise the importance of the profession, I will be very pleased indeed.

And that is because architecture - and I must at once define my terms; by architecture I mean more than design; I mean that subtle combination of design and art that pleases the body, the mind and the spirit - architecture in this sense is important, and it is important in at least two respects. First, it enhances the environment in which we live and work. Second, it expresses the contemporary spirit, not just for our own sakes, but for later generations too, because inevitably it creates a legacy which they will inherit.

It may be a product of our pioneering, do-it-yourself, egalitarian attitudes that at times these truths are not recognised by the community at large, and that therefore leads to some of the criticism we hear. But at times, if I may say so, despite the very high standards that are so often attained, members of the architectural profession themselves fail to appreciate them, and so the criticism can be justified.

Whatever the reason, I strongly believe that New Zealand needs much, much more architectural input, much more architecturally-imaginative building: too much construction in this country jars with its environment, both natural and man-made, or lacks the sort of creativity that could and should be provided by a lively architectural community serving a receptive clientele; the latter being of course just as important as the former: if not more so, for without a receptive clientele, the most gifted architect will be unable to express his talent.

Most mornings I walk through the grounds of my old school. When I was there, the buildings were quite splendid. They formed a homogeneous whole, apart from one survivor from an earlier era which stood apart, but very comfortably. The buildings were well placed in the contours of the hills, and set off the school's pride, a magnificent assembly hall with a superb stained glass window. But it was decided these were an earthquake risk, and so the lot were knocked down, and in their place there went up a most undistinguished hall alongside which the window was reluctantly housed at a low level, and the site was overwhelmed by a multi-storey monstrosity which looks as if it was dropped there by a careless passer-by.

We have a holiday house at a lovely spot alongside Lake Taupo. It is no architectural gem, and I can only plead that we didn't build it. But the houses that have been built since, that are still being built, are an extraordinary jumble. There are some fine examples of architecture, but not too many. The incompatible, the downright ugly, dominate.

Having got that off my chest, it will not surprise you that in my opinion the buildings we New Zealanders have been putting up in the last decades are a fairly motley collection: far too many are architecturally uninspiring, whether considered individually, or collectively, with their neighbours.

Even design-wise, we often don't do very well at all. The latest fads are followed of course. So we see houses featuring split levels, open plans, colourfully-tiled bathrooms, ranch sliders out onto the barbecue deck and so on. But at the same time, these very same houses may often not be terribly well insulated, may be fairly draughty and energy inefficient, or not particularly sensitively-sited, or short on practicalities like storage space.

But, and this is really my point, not enough new housing is at all interesting, notably intelligent in the selection and/or use of materials, let alone aesthetically pleasing. We have few design standards. Individuality is the thing - which often means the limited imagination of the developer or the play-safe approach of the spec builder. I am not pleading for uniformity, but for harmony - the sort of harmony we see in some of our old suburban streets, where the houses are different, maybe painted in all the colours of the rainbow, but sitting comfortably on their plots and alongside their neighbours.

This country's stock of residential housing represents a colossal national investment. But is New Zealand getting the best possible return on the vast amount of money we put into residential construction?

On the commercial, industrial and public construction front, too, there is much to sigh about. For every imaginative industrial or commercial building, there will be many that are drearily and strictly utilitarian; for every office building that impresses with its lasting architectural merit, there are many that have one or two cosmetic touches, but nothing higher in the way of creative ambition, that show no real attempt to build with sensitivity or with an eye to neighbourhood compatibility or enduring environmental soundness.

And then consider what happens with our older public and commercial buildings, the ones we've inherited, but which are ripe for redevelopment. Rather too often I think it's fair to say, when there is a building already occupying a desirable site, only two out of the available three options are examined with any care.

One option of course is demolition. It's the easiest, and probably the most economic, particularly if something undistinguished is to go in its place. And so it seems to be the most usual course: any ideas about refurbishment are put firmly to one side and the building is knocked down - its fabric converted to landfill.

But Option Number One usually should be, surely, refurbishment. It may not be the most economic option; but should that be the sole criterion? Has commerce, industry an equal responsibility, along with government and public bodies, to preserve our heritage? As has been said of automobile design, it is only alright to start with a clean sheet of paper, when you have nothing worth preserving. But New Zealand has an architectural heritage that should be preserved. And splendid work has been done - Parliament Buildings, the old wooden Government Buildings are examples. Of course we do not always care, much, for some of the legacy we have inherited. But that does not entitle us to write it off and demolish it wholesale. How often have I heard even architects say that this or that building has no architectural merit, and so it can go. But these are very subjective judgements. What we may wish to condemn to the demolition gang, may have been seen as of considerable merit in its day. It may be thought so again. What right have we to think our judgement superior to that of our predecessors, or to deny to our successors the opportunity to experience the work of earlier generations?

The third option, often not far removed from the first, is to emulate the spider. The shell of an insect after a spider is through with it, is still recognisable as this bug, or that moth, or such-and-such a butterfly. But the insides have been removed. So it is with redevelopment projects where all that is left of the original is the husk, the facade. Granted, this will be necessary sometimes. Sometimes it works very well. It certainly does in other parts of the world. But, often, preservation of the facade is just that - a facade, a pretence. Stand back, and look at a one- or two-storey 19th century frontal with a glass and steel multi-storey towering behind and over it, and the effect is not always entirely satisfactory. But I suppose it's usually better than nothing. And of course, as always, there are the economics to be considered.

Which means that preservation of our architectural heritage requires considerable public and commercial education, an adjustment of priorities, a tide of public opinion. This, I believe, is growing as more and more of our architectural heritage is bowled over. And to assist this, I believe that heritage architecture as a professional speciality deserves greater emphasis and greater respect.

I am conscious that I am being very subjective about all this, and that I might very well be thought to have been contradicting myself. The message I really want to give is this : the only way that people will come, more commonly, to realise that there is always a creative solution to a building problem, that better houses can be built, and more pleasing city buildings, without necessarily raising costs, is to raise the profile of outstanding architecture and of outstanding architects. And that is why I am delighted to be here this evening, and to play a part in supporting the Carter Holt Harvey Architectural Awards for 1997. Congratulations to Carter Holt Harvey for supporting them for 33 years. May the prestige of these awards grow greater and greater. And may the people who win them, go from strength to professional strength.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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