Classicist with a cause

By Brett Riley In From Our Archive

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LISTENER, OCTOBER 24, 1987 #2488 p64

Christchurch Town Hall in the 70s/Listener archive

He is the only New Zealand architect knighted for his contribution to architecture. He is said to have invented a civic style in New Zealand with his Christchurch Town Hall. He certainly invented the distinctive New Zealand exposed concrete-block townhouse. He has spawned a school of followers. Many of the country’s younger architectural luminaries have come through his office. He still gets to pluck the big public commissions. He is sometimes referred to as “the master”.

Sir Miles Warren, bushy browed and slightly stooped, describes himself as a closet classicist now coming out of his closet. With a vengeance, he might add. With some degree of apology he recalls how new and exciting it was in New Zealand in the 60s to design an eight-storey office block with a structural core and precast concrete-wall units.

Now the super-rational, blank, lifeless faces of some of those structures line our city streets. While they seem today the somewhat embarrassing legacy of the modernist style, architects of the day believed they were operating at last in the realm of pure structure and technique, having shed for good the cheap and transient trappings of style. That was just considered fancy dress, Warren recalls. It was wicked.

“So confident were we, the architects of the 60s, about the superiority of our product,” he admits, “that we were happy to plonk them down in the matrix of the old with scant regard for their environment. We assumed the absolutely top-notch quality would be enough.”

It wasn’t of course. He says it was merely a reflection of the rationality and economic stringencies of the postwar years evidenced in the puritan restraints of brutalism, eventually transported to New Zealand. “Now the clumsy, primitive frame for 15-storey office buildings is a form to be hidden by reflective glass.”

But despite architects like Warren publicly apologising for some of the excesses of their modernist past, those banal blocks of uncommunicative glass-curtained offices not only continue to sprout like weeds in Auckland, Wellington and now Christchurch, they dominate the cityscapes.

Miles Warren/Listener archive

They are, in Warren’s words, the deadweight of today’s basic building types: office buildings for developers. So much standard space for so much money. “The potential of new building functions seems exhausted. Our modest New Zealand past is mined to exhaustion. We’ve come to the end of an era. “The elements can be reduced no further.” The props are out.

For him the post-modern eclecticism of the late 80s has been a release, and he has embraced it whole-heartedly. Not based on anything specifically local, his inspiration has usually come from the joy of rediscovering an architectural heritage that he says was always there. He can pull out his books on Lutyens and Palladio and not feel guilty any more.

“All the thou-shalt-nots, all the negative rules, have been removed. Now the nude basic building must be decently draped… I’m a dab hand at Corinthian columns made of plastic sewer pipe, mesh and stucco.”

While warning that it’s too glib and east to tack on the fashionable thing, his buildings are nevertheless now decked in columns, arches, pilasters, porticos and bright colours. He’s having great fun – a second childhood, in the view of a colleague. And he makes no apologies for drawing on European tradition and fashion. “Of course a small country on the fringe of the world has always looked abroad.”

Warren is a giant in New Zealand architecture, and there aren’t many Davids around with catapaults. But overseas architects invited to Christchurch for the biennial New Zealand Institute of Architects’ conference in August weren’t so constrained.

Said Edward Cullinan, the noted British architect whose hotel room faced Warren’s new neo-classical Finance House across the Avon: “In New Zealand to take a Greek portico and stuff it on top of a building is completely and absolutely tragic. It has no meaning.”

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