If Ted talks, we should listen

In Dunedin there has been a debate raging over the proposal by the city to expand the Dunedin Town Hall, scene of many graduations, conferences and functions. While the facility is grand, beautiful and old, it is also quickly becoming past it’s use by date in that many of the functions it accommodates are far to big for the building.

The main suggestion at the moment has been to extend the building in one form or another onto Harrop St and the adjacent car parking area. The problem with this solution is that Harrop st is one of the few thoroughfares into the Octagon and is one of the remaining free spaces which don’t intrude into the vista and physical space of the heritage buildings in the Octagon.


The group fighting for the project to be scrapped Hands off Harrop has been active and as a result there has been a peer review of the whole architectural process and design, which came back with recommendations that the plans be greatly reduced.

An op-ed in the Otago Daily Times today ( 28-5-08 ) by one of this countries greatest architect Ted McCoy advocated a hands off approach, in that the surrounding buildings are architectural marvels which need the space around them, to allow the buildings to well, be themselves. I have been a critic of NIMBY’s in the past, and am far from a protectionist when it comes to architectural heritage. However, Dunedin might just be one of those places in which the exception will prove the case. There are merits in the thoughts around the development of the Dunedin Centre/Town Hall, however in this case these out weigh the negative effects that this will have on the surrounding area.

I mean if Ted McCoy speaks on the architectural integrity of Dunedin, we should all listen. McCoy (and I hate doing this) is our Norman Foster and Frank Lloyd Wright all wrapped up in one bundle. A recently published book on the work of McCoy is worthy of any book case the length and breadth of the country and wouldn’t be out of place in the libraries of the most eminent architectural practices around the world.

From the review of the book,

“Amongst New Zealand architects, McCoy is outstanding in that he has a detailed colour photographic record covering fifty years of work. He was awarded a national medal for his first commission, a students’ hall of residence, at the age of twenty-five. His work ranges from Central Otago holiday houses, through schools and churches to multi-storey university and commercial buildings, shopping malls, and a cathedral. In 1980, he was selected from all
New Zealand practices to design a new National Art Gallery in Molesworth Street, Wellington. He designed the New Zealand High Commissioner’s Residence in Canberra, Australia, and the Chancery for the High Commission in Papua New Guinea. He was called from retirement in 2000 to lead the fine redevelopment of the Otago Museum.”

The work of McCoy is synonymous with the greater region of Otago, as iconic as Ian Athfield or Miles Warren are to Wellington and Christchurch respectively. As much as I am a lover of architecture and have my own ideas of what a great building is, I have to respect the word of McCoy.

I’m the kind of guy while on holiday who will go out of my way to see great architecture. While in Chicago, of course I had to go the Robie House in Oak Park by Frank Lloyd Wright, not to mention the body of architectural history that started the skyscraper and culminated in the Sears Tower (by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill) and John Hancock Centre buildings. London consisted of walking around ‘The City’ to take in the architectural marvels of the Swiss Re Building (Gherkin) by Lord Foster, the Lloyd’s of London Headquarters by Richard Rogers. New York was just head up the whole way, the only time I looked down was to marvel at the architectural wonder of the 5th Avenue showcase Apple Store. NY not only has the Empire State Building and of course the now ill fated World Trade twin towers, it is home to the stunning Chrysler Building, MetLife Tower (the old Pan Am building), the incredible Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe and across the road the exquisite Lever House by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. The architecture of Park and Madison Avenues from the 1950s and 60s is something to behold, I’m sorry to all of the suits that I bumped into that day in NY.

But this is exactly what I am on about. As amazing as Parkt Ave in New York was with the Seagram and Lever buildings opposite each other and countless other architectural marvels all about the place, here Dunedin we have our very own architectural marvels. For me the experience of walking around New York on a sunny late autumn day just hoping and praying that my digital camera didn’t go flat, was one that will stay with me forever. As McCoy states “As well as serving practical needs, buildings also have a symbolic function.” Quite possibly nowhere in the world is this as evident as in New York, but we do have this here in Dunedin under our very noses. We have the Dunedin Railway Station building by George Troup, reportedly NZ’s most photographed building, and then right across the road are the Law Courts. We can point to the proposed 5 Star Hilton Hotel planned for the Historic Dunedin Post office as an inspiration as to what we can do with old buildings whom are in serious need of repair or transformation (and there are many in that part of Dunedin).

To me the place of architecture in the psyche of Kiwis is both undervalued and overlooked. There possibly isn’t one Kiwi who doesn’t know what the Beehive is, or what the Sky Tower looks like, or isn’t aware that the Cake Tin is actually a sports stadium. The sense of belonging and beauty that is the Peregine Winery in the Gibston Valley on the way to Queenstown is an example of how evocative and stunning a building can be. The generous people at Peregine only needed a shed to hold and mature the wine and a cellar door to sell the stuff, but instead they wanted to add to the environment and tell the world about themselves. Architecture provides a greater sense of community and belonging that I think people would give credit for. Driving down Blenheim Road in ChCh with the multitude of tilt-slab precast concrete businesses is enough to make one pull their hair out, yet the new Pier and New Brighton Library are stunning buildings and experiences.

The more I read about the Dunedin Centre the more I am deciding that it just isn’t a good idea, too many compromises to the architectural integrity of the Otago and surrounding area for too little a gain, and when the architectural weight of the likes of Ted McCoy illustrate the power of the surrounding buildings, one has to listen and listen good.

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